In the kingdom of herbs, lovage is a lion. It is powerful, prolific, hardy and versatile. Not only is the whole plant edible, it’s also ridiculously easy to grow.
Lovage (levisticum officinale) is a tall perennial herb part of the large family that includes parsley, celery, fennel, coriander and cumin. The familiar flavour of lovage draws from this family profile, providing the culinary context that guides its use in the kitchen.
Noted food historian Joan Thirsk observed that, “all herbs, vegetables and fruit had a stronger flavour then (c.1585) than now” — lovage is an exception. It’s always had a distinctive character, and those who’ve grown up cooking with it know that it’s herbaceous, with ample chlorophyll. We’ve also learned to handle it with restraint! It has never been commercialized, and luckily is one of the rarities to have been saved from agricultural “improvement.”
A kitchen garden is a living larder, and lovage rounds this out beautifully. It doesn’t need a lot of care, water or full sun. It can be started from seed, but it is faster to propagate from a clump with roots. Gardeners that grow it will be happy to share a section of root, which you can transplant anytime between frosts.
At the Edmonton Organic Growers Guild, one plant supplies five cooks and another dozen occasional users. It’s little wonder Eastern Europeans utilize the saying, “when you have a little lovage, you have a lot.” So don’t be shy to share!
Lovage leaves can be used in salads, soups and stews. I use them to make pesto blended with other herbs like basil and parsley, which I freeze in ice cube trays. One cube of lovage pesto (see recipe here) puts the pop in a fresh soup or savoury stew. The leaves are also excellent in a Bloody Mary (er, Caesar), but don’t muddle them — aim for a light bruise.
What’s great about lovage, is how many purposes it serves. The hollow stems can be used fresh or frozen, in one-pot dishes, candied like angelica, or used as a stir stick or straw in bar drinks. How cool is that?
Whatever you do, allow some of the plant to bloom. The flower has a lovely umbrelliferous shape that attracts many different pollinators from butterflies to bumble bees. Following flowering, the resulting seeds are spicy, similar in shape and taste to caraway and celery seed, and once dried, keep very well.
River Café has remained one of the finest dining destinations in Calgary in a very competitive market. One element of their success is the kitchen garden right beside the restaurant, tended by their very own chefs. And guess what? They grow lovage! The chefs use the plant in many creative ways. As a purée it has an eye-catching lime green colour that is used in plating as a drizzle, or a swirl. As a mousse, it acts as a bed for other vegetables. And, of course, it also ends up in many of their delicious dishes.
Cooking with lovage will expand your flavour palate and boost your nutrition. From garden to kitchen, let your lovage roar!