One trend, three trailblazers

Three ways with: herbs in desserts

From basil and rosemary to lovage and fennel, more chefs are experimenting with how seasonings can freshen up puds and naturally add colour to food.

29 November 2018

The trend

  • Many herbs can be foraged around the UK. Hedgerow varieties include borage, dandelion, nettle and fennel, while Britain has a tradition of cultivating lovage, tansy, sweet cicely, marigold and rosehip.
  • Like other fresh produce, herbs are seasonal, so should be used accordingly. As Richard Allen, executive chef at The Orangery at Rockliffe Hall, says: “Bay leaf, thyme and rosemary give a dessert a distinct autumnal feel, whereas something like a basil sorbet or a tarragon ice cream have a much more summery element.”
  • Many fresh herbs – including mint, lemon balm, fennel, dandelion and lavender –  are said to aid digestion, making them a useful addition to the final course.

Herbs – perhaps with the exception of mint – have long been the preserve of savoury dishes, but as a growing number of chefs are proving, sweet treats can also benefit from some plant-based seasoning. 

From Mediterranean herbs like basil and rosemary to traditional British varieties such as lovage and fennel, a whole array of herbs are sprouting up in desserts at restaurants around the UK.

The advantages of adding herbs are multiple: they can lighten up heavy dairy-based desserts, enhance fruit-based ones, cut through sweetness, or simply add colour and flavour in a natural way.

As Ross Sloan, head chef at Mount Haven Hotel in Cornwall, says, “If added right, herbs add flavour and don't alter the texture of the other ingredients,” making them an easy ingredient to work with.

“Herbs are pretty present in all of my food, so it only makes sense to use them in desserts too,” explains Tommy Heaney, head chef at Heaney's Cardiff, who counts a dessert of fresh strawberries with mascarpone mousse and basil as one of his favourites.

“We’re also planning on putting an apple crumble and meadowsweet infused custard on the menu, and herbs also work especially well in sorbets and consommes.”


The trailblazers

Simon Hulstone, chef proprietor of The Elephant in Torquay: “Tansy pudding is an old English dessert using the leaves of the tansy herb to enhance a simple bread and egg pudding. It’s pretty much a forgotten dish since bread and butter pudding took the limelight, but one that is very tasty and can be flavoured with various other herbs, flowers or spices. This is a simple one to make: breadcrumbs, milk, cream, sugar, eggs and tansy are all mixed together and cooked in individual dariole or ramekin moulds in a bain marie. Tansy has a slight medicinal flavour, a bit like chervil but stronger, which is one of the reasons it was probably looked at less favourably in later years, I add rose petals and rosewater to my recipe to balance the tansy flavour but keep it English in style.”


Curro López Gullón, head chef at Zela London: “We make a chilled lime and basil soup, which we serve with different fruits – in January, we'll use mangoes, apples, oranges and papayas. The dish always has the signature base of basil syrup, which we make with fresh basil and unrefined cane sugar. Basil is a herb that is always easy to find and is generally in an excellent condition. It has an aroma and freshness that combines very well with the majority of fruit and, of course, delivers a very bright green colour. We serve the basil syrup with a lime syrup to make a 'soup' and serve the fruit on top. The fruit is cut in the same way we would our sashimi to generate contrast.”


Ross Sloan, head chef at Mount Haven Hotel: “Our velvety white chocolate mousse is infused with lemon verbena and served with rosehip jelly and syrup, berries and chia seed crackers. We make the mousse by heating milk with lemon verbena, which is then left overnight to get as much flavour as possible. We add gelatine and whip this with more cream and Italian meringue. Meanwhile, the chia seeds are soaked in water, then spread out thinly and dehydrated to create crackers. We garnish the dish with rosehip jelly and syrup, berries and raspberry gel, finished off with a dusting of lovage powder. The herbs add something unusual and savoury to a sweet dessert. The lemon verbena brings a citrus element to the dish without having too much acidity and changing the texture of the mousse, while the lovage adds colour and an unusual savoury element.”

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