Loving Good King Henry


A recent discussion on the Plant Breeding for Permaculture facebook group had me rallying to the support of Good King Henry.

Good King Henry - Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus)

The general consensus seemed to be that it would be a really great perennial vegetable if only it tasted better! Now I love Good King Henry and I have to admit I found myself feeling a little defensive on its behalf .... I think I may be over-emotionally involved with a vegetable! I like both the flavour of its leaves and its young flower shoots lightly steamed. I agree it is bitter - but no more bitter than kale I would say.

In the course of my love affair with Good King Henry I've researched it extensively. On the whole I would say it gets more bad reviews than good ones. Although bitterness is the usual complaint I've also seen it described as insipid, tasteless and bland! Good reviews generally have the leaves as preferred to spinach and the young shoots as being equal to asparagus. I haven't begun to untangle what is at variance here, whether it is just individual taste, or whether the flavour varies across plants, or maybe seasons, soils, moisture/light conditions or cooking methods.

Poached egg with Good King Henry shoots
Poached egg with Good King Henry shoots

But I was smitten before ever I tasted Good King Henry - or saw it! From the start I was intrigued, like others are, by the quaint name with its hint at a close relationship between man and plant. And I went on to discover that it is a pot-herb that has probably been in continuous use in Britain from Medieval times or earlier (pollen from Good King Henry has been found at Neolithic/Bronze Age and Roman sites - but as a common weed of disturbed ground it is hard to say for sure to what degree it formed part of the occupants' diets). The tradition of its use mostly died out during the last century, but is still within living memory especially in Lincolnshire. Here's my collection of echoes of that tradition in snippets I’ve found on the net and in Lincolnshire Life magazine:
"I want to tell you about mercury – Lincolnshire spinach – or in some parts of the country Good King Henry. Mercury is pronounced marcury in Lincolnshire and used to be very common in gardens. My family have always grown and eaten it and I have quite a large bed in my garden; being perennial it needs little attention and no matter the weather it comes up. This year particularly after all the rain in the summer vegetables will be late and mercury will fill the gap when we’ve finished the brocolli, kale, etc., until the peas, beans, etc. are ready. We eat it like spinach – boiled – and then I like it hot or cold – also I love the flowerheads and sometimes strip the leaves off and eat as ‘poor man’s asparagus’. My grandmother used to tell me because it was so deep rooted it was full of iron and minerals. For many years I’ve thought it was probably responsible for my good resistance to colds and infection. I do enjoy it and eat a lot – more than the rest of the family." Washingborough, Lincolnshire, March 1994.
From plantlore.com website
"The couple grow a spinach-like vegetable known as mercury, it is also known as Good King Henry, Lincolnshire spinach and poor man’s asparagus. Mr Sizer said it was once popular but you would not find in the shops now. “It’s like spinach and is full of iron,” he said. “Years and years ago when I was a young boy we used to have it at my granddads."
From Good Year at Allotments, Horncastle News 13th August 2009’
"i haven’t seen or tasted markery or marquery since i was a small boy. no one i have asked has heard of it except for one man who said it is a weed and takes a lot of getting rid of and he had only just succeded. mother treated it like a leaf vegetable and ate it often. grandfather had a large clump which he harvested year-round. it looked like a dock plant gone crazy. the very dark green leaves looked like black string when boiled and (to me) it tasted bitter but livened up cabbage no end. 
i would like to taste it again. i suspect markery is a local name for probably a more well known plant. please help." Verne, Lincolnshire
From Growsonyou.com website 9th April 2011
"It is a perennial in which the top dies down every autumn. It can be forced some years. It is one of the first cut and come again crops of the year which we still use." Brian Hornsey, Stamford
From Lincolnshire Life Nov. 2002
"My father, Dick Needham, of Grimoldby, near Louth, had a good-sized bed. I remember it had quite a bitter taste but ours was always well flavoured as mother used to boil it in the water that she had boiled a joint of bacon or ham in." MD, Scunthorpe
From Lincolnshire Life. Nov. 2002
"In the late 1910s and 1920s, when my father kept two pigs in the sty at the bottom of our garden in Millfield Terrace, Sleaford, Markery, as my mother called it, was one of the ingredients she collected in the zinc family bathtub for use as stuffing for the chines.
In the Second World War, our local greengrocer, Mr Hix, grew a fairly large area of the plant. It was cut just before the stems reached budding stage, made up into bundles, and sold as Lincolnshire spinach." Les Gostick, Sleaford

From Lincolnshire Life Nov. 2002
"The daffodil that used to come up in the midst of Mrs Leiver’s wild plot has come up again this year in spite of all the soldiers digging and traffic. It has 3 or 4 lovely blooms. “Fair daffodil, that comes before the swallow dares, And takes the winds of March with beauty.” Only it is April this year, all things are late. Father weeded the markery bed and it is beginning to grow. Sp cabb coming along too." Saturday April 11 8.30 pm 1942
From May Hill's WW11 Diaries
"I have been growing and eating mercury for the last eighty-six years and cannot understand why it isn't grown more often. It is the only vegetable I know that is completely pest free." Stanley Scarman, Theddlethorpe
From Lincolnshire Life Nov. 2002
I've also been pleased to find out that Good King Henry is still loved in mountainous regions of mainland Europe. A study on the use of wild plants in the Alps in Switzerland found that Good King Henry was amongst the four plants
mentioned most often in interviews with villagers (the other three being dandelion, nettle and elder). I found a recipe for potato dumplings stuffed with Good King Henry from a ski lodge in Switzerland, and from the Apennines, one for olapri (Good King Henry) tartlets and one for pasta with orapi, smoked pancetta and salted ricotta.

But in case you're not in the Good King Harry fan club you might still take John Claudius Louden's pragmatic view that,
"A perennial spinach, however, whether from the Beta maritima, or Chenopodium Bonus Henricus, is very desirable in every garden, as a resource in case of neglect or accident, and because the plants being in perpetual maturity, and abundantly furnished with proper sap, are, as it were, ever on the alert to take advantage of any circumstances favourable to vegetation."
The Gardener's Magazine, Volume 2 1827
A nicely put case for perennial vegetables Mr Louden!


The Chicory Challenge


Cichorium intybus Gaulsheim
Chicory flowers - image courtesy of Manfred Heyde

Chicory is a tough, deep-rooted plant, similar to a dandelion, that can provide somewhat bitter but very flavoursome leaves in winter - and in a lovely range of colours and variegations too.

The challenge with chicory for the perennial vegetable grower is finding the perennial forms. In "Perennial Vegetables" Eric Toensmeier explains that the wild form of chicory may be biennial or perennial and cultivated varieties may be annual, biennial or perennial. Furthermore sometimes only some individuals within a variety may be perennial. Whilst annual and biennial forms will die after flowering, perennial forms will persist and survive the winter if they don't succumb to the cold and wet. The leaves however are unlikely to form a tight head in later years (they are also best picked when the plants are not in flower to avoid extreme bitterness).

Last year I embarked on trying to grow perennial cultivated chicories. It's useful to start with a list of varieties to try. In, "Plants for a Future" Ken Fern lists three, which are included in Martin Crawford's expanded list of eleven in, "How to Grow Perennial Vegetables". Both these writers are growing in the south-west of the UK so more useful to me was Alys Fowler's experiment in the Midlands where she grew a 'great sweep of Italian seeds' to see which ones would perennialise. Rossa di Treviso and Variegata di Castelfranco came out tops and reading this I decided to start by trying the former.

Below are some photos I took yesterday. Here in East Yorkshire (in quite an exposed spot on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds) some of the Rossa di Treviso plants have come through the winter fine.

Hardy chicory Rossa di Treviso
Hardy chicory Rossa di Treviso

Others less well!

Rossa di Treviso damaged by winter cold and wet
Rossa di Treviso damaged by winter cold and wet

The seed for these plants was sown in late summer and they grew well through the autumn with bigger leaves than in the pictures above. We enjoyed some leaves in mixed salads and braised with walnuts and goats cheese. But they are definitely less bitter after the first frosts - although the plants have smaller leaves to offer because the larger outer leaves tend to die away as winter progresses.

This year I'm planning to give Variegata di Castelfranco and Italiko Rosso
a try. Hopefully plants that get through one winter will survive a few and I can gradually build up a colourful chicory collection.

We had chicory for tea tonight. I adapted this recipe in Eric Toensmeier's book, using what we had available - which was leeks rather than red onions and dried White Emergo runner beans in place of cannelini beans.

White beans ready for cooking
I cooked the soaked beans earlier in the day

Chicory leaves, leeks, thyme, tarragon, red wine
The thyme and tarragon were lovely in this recipe

Chicory, beans and leeks frying
 Just a short while to fry the leeks, beans and chicory.

Chicory and beans in serving bowl
Wine, salt, tarragon and thyme mixed in.

I think I could eat this meal weekly through the winter. Stew finds the bitterness of chicory a bit of a challenge! He said he felt it needed something creamy added, such as feta cheese. So it was a shame really that I'd forgotten to serve it with the grated Parmesan that the recipe called for!


Winter in the Perennial Vegetable Garden (2)

Comments very welcome!

Here are the winter photos for the second set of perennial vegetable photos I've put on this blog. Spot the vegetables you might get a harvest from in the snow compared to the ones which are definitely not baring any green. (But bear in mind that you'd get a better harvest from more mature or more pampered plants than some of these!)

(Spring, summer and autumn photos. Photos from 2013/4 here.)

New cardoon
Solomon's Seal
Tree onion
Welsh onion
Potato onion
Everlasting onion
Elephant garlic
Mallow (Mystic Merlin)
New globe artichoke
Wild cabbage
Patience dock
Salad burnet
Dwarf golden hop
Wild rocket
Buck's horn plantain


Salad Burnet Pesto

Comments very welcome!

Salad burnet.....
salad burnet
salad burnet in the snow
and pretty,
salad burnet in flower
ingredients for salad burnet pesto
pretty good.....
salad burnet pesto in blender
salad burnet pesto in bowl

I think it's scrumptious - can't wait for my tea! 

N.B. I toasted the sunflower seeds first and also added some fresh tarragon and a little fresh rosemary to the mix.


Babington Leek Soup


On Monday I drifted rather limply around the allotment, in a weakened state during a bout of worsened asthma following a virus, wondering what would be easy to harvest for a meal.

Newly emerging Babington leeks
Newly emerging Babington leeks

I decided to pull a bunch of these young Babington leeks to use in a soup. (Now that they are established on the plot the leeks seem to be re-emerging in early winter, not in spring as they did at first).

Babington leek, elephant garlic and air onion bulbs
Babington leek, elephant garlic and air onion bulbs

I also pulled up a small elephant garlic bulb (at centre in the photo) and a clump of Finnish air onions (right in photo). (The air onions are still a bit of a mystery. I got seed for them from an Ebay seller along with a note describing how they develop top-set onions and generally behave like tree onions. So far mine have just developed Welsh onion-like flowerheads followed by seeds. It will be interesting to watch to see what they do in future years).

Babington leek soup during a time of illness seemed a good idea. I surmised that as they emit a strong garlic smell when chopped they must contain alliin, a precursor of the compound allicin which gives garlic its distinctive odour and which is often reported to have potent cold-fighting properties (and several other therapeutic effects). I haven't been able to find any measures of alliin in Babington leek but I did find one study which found that elephant garlic (a close relative of Babington leek but rather less strongly garlic-scented when crushed) contains about a quarter of the alliin content of garlic.

Babington leeks in late spring
Babington leeks in late spring

Alliin is found in intact garlic cells. Nearby but physically separated from the alliin resides the enzyme alliinase. When the cells are damaged by a predator or pathogen (including cooks with garlic crushers or sharp knives) alliin and alliinase combine to form allicin. Alliinase doesn't survive cooking but allicin is more heat-stable so the advice is to crush garlic and then let it sit for ten minutes to allow the allicin to form before preparing your dish.

(I'm not sure of the state of scientific research on garlic and allicin therapy. I must admit I ate a lot of raw crushed garlic before and during this latest cold and subsequent chest infection to no good avail - but I'm not quite ready to give up all trust in garlic yet!)

So I crushed and chopped my alliums (both bulbs, leaves and green shoots) and sautéed them slowly in oil. When they were softened I added a pint and a half of vegetable stock, two bay leaves and some thyme and some chopped scorzonera root to give some thickness, and simmered the soup until the scorzonera was cooked and then removed the bay leaves and blended and seasoned it.

Babington leek soup
Babington leek soup

Well it didn't taste too good. It was bitter. I think I was hoping for something slightly akin to lovely French onion soup or at least to leek and potato soup. So I added a chopped potato and some more water and seasoning and simmered and blended it again. Better, less bitter and good enough for me to wolf down a bowlful, but well, not a great soup. Perhaps I didn't sauté long enough or maybe the inclusion of the leaves was a mistake. It was the first time I had cooked with the bulbs of Babington leeks. I will try them again, perhaps roasted next time, but other suggestions from more sure-footed cooks than I are very welcome!


Sugar and Spice....


Last December I strayed from the topic of perennial vegetables for a change and found myself writing about making comfrey plaster. I've decided to make straying from the topic a mid-winter tradition - this means that today I can write about two other non-vegetable perennial plant uses which I've been curious about for a while.

The first is the use of the sugarleaf herb Stevia rebaudiana as a sweetener. I mostly wanted to do this as an exercise in self-sufficiency (potentially one less shop-bought item) but Stevia is attractive to me as a healthier alternative to sugar too. Stevia is not hardy enough for outdoor living all year round in the UK but I've been growing Stevia on my windowsill for a while ever since I learnt it will grow in a less than fully sunny spot (of which we have few). This year I took a bunch of softwood cuttings and very soon had a whole tray of plants to harvest for leaves. The photo below is of a small more recent cutting. It will need trimming soon to prevent it from flowering and seeding so it will overwinter. Here is a photo from the permies.com site of an older bushier plant.

Stevia plant

Stevia drying
Stevia drying

I ground the dry stevia leaves with a hand blender and added warm water to the leaves in a jar (in the ratio of 4 parts water to 1 part leaves). I shook it up and then let it sit on the kitchen side for 24 hours.

Freshly ground Stevia
Freshly ground

Stevia infusing in warm water
Warm water added

The resulting infusion was strained into a jar. I decided to use the Stevia solution to make some blackcurrant cordial by thawing some frozen blackcurrants, cooking them up with very little water to make a thick puree and diluting and sweetening the strained puree to taste.

Strained Stevia infusion
Strained Stevia infusion

Strained cooked blackcurrants
Strained cooked blackcurrants

This glass of refreshing blackcurrant cordial contains two tablespoons of puree and one and a half teaspoons of Stevia solution. It was sweet enough for me and I couldn't detect any of the Stevia aftertaste that I'd heard mentioned. Perhaps it didn't come through the strong blackcurrant flavour.

Sugar-free blackcurrant cordial
Sugar-free blackcurrant cordial

You can use Stevia for almost all recipes that call for sugar - with careful attention to quantities, because it is much sweeter than sugar, and adopting some special measures in baked recipes where sugar may have a structural and/or chemical role. (Ha! That sounded quite good I thought but I don't really know what I'm talking about now - more information here). I've only baked with Stevia in a banana cake so far - this was fine but someone pointed out to me that you don't really need any additional sweetness at all in a banana cake! More experimenting to come.

The second non-vegetable perennial plant use was inspired by reading about herb bennet (Geum urbanum) in Alys Fowler's book The Thrifty Forager. She explains that the roots of herb bennet 'impart a wonderful clove flavour' when you cook with them. Well this was the vigorous, almost thuggish, plant I'd been hard at work pulling out of the pots in the backyard where it loves to self-seed itself! I looked around and found one plant left (which I uprooted to satisfy my curiosity - but I'm not worried - its children will be back!)

Herb bennet plant
Herb bennet

Only having one root I very carefully washed off all the soil, dried it and chopped the whole thing up (even the fine hairy portions which I wouldn't have bothered with if I'd had more.) The hand blender couldn't make contact with such a small portion of chopped root so I mixed it with sugar in order to blend it and produced this spiced sugar which spelt lovely - and clovely!

Sugar spiced with clove-root
Sugar spiced with clove-root

I had spiced apple pie in mind at first but then decided to adapt a recipe I found for clove biscuits. (This involved adding half a cup of melted butter to one cup of spiced sugar, stirring in half a teaspoon of vanilla extract, one beaten egg and one cup of sifted flour and then letting the dough rest in the fridge for fifteen minutes. Teaspoons of the dough on baking sheets gave two dozen cookies and were baked at 350°F for about ten minutes.)

Uncooked cookies

The resultant cookies do have a lovely clove flavour and are crisp with a slightly chewy centre (but were a bit too sweet for my taste). Of course the next step should be cookies both spiced with Geum urbanum and sweetened with Stevia rebaudiana!

Finished clove cookies

Happy Christmas/Yuletide!