Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is a tall, perennial herb in the carrot family (Apiaceae). It’s thought to be come from southern Europe, the sunny mountain slopes of the Mediterranean and southwestern Asia. For centuries it was used therapeutically, primarily for digestive relief, and later became a prominent culinary herb that’s especially well known in European kitchens.
Herbalists may also be familiar with Chinese lovage (Ligusticum striatum), which is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
LOVAGE IN HISTORY
The ancient Greeks chewed lovage seed and leaves to aid digestion and relieve flatulence. The Romans are thought to have brought it to Britain, where it has naturalized and now grows wild.
In the Middle Ages, it was used by Benedictine monks for stomach settling cordials. It has deodorizing and antiseptic effects and travelers from that time are said to have placed lovage leaves in their shoes to protect and refresh their feet.
John Gerard, an English herbalist from the 16th century, believed lovage to be one of the best remedies of his time. Nicholas Culpepper, an English herbalist from the 17th century, claimed powdered lovage root steeped in mulled wine would warm a cold stomach and help digestion.
At one time, lovage seeds were as expensive as black pepper.
Lovage is said to have come to America with colonists, and similar to dill seed (a botanical cousin), church-goers would chew the candied roots to keep them awake during long services.
LOVAGE IN THE GARDEN
Lovage is a vigorous spring perennial, up early in the season to produce lots of leaves and stalks. Considered a good companion plant for root vegetables, it’s said to promote their growth.
When the weather turns warm, lovage will send a spray of umbel flowers upwards, reaching six to seven feet high under optimal conditions. The yellow-green flower clusters are pollinator friendly and later produce numerous seeds or more accurately schizocarps (dried fruits).
LOVAGE IN THE KITCHEN
Lovage’s flavor is often described as a cross between celery and parsley, with a hint of anise. It has an intense flavor that newcomers are recommended to use with restraint. That said, there are resolute fans of lovage who can’t get enough. To those who love the flavor, add it at the end of cooking for a more forward taste. While cooking it longer can mellow it, its flavor will still permeate a dish.
All parts of lovage are edible, the roots, shoots and seeds. It’s compatible with any dish that calls for celery or celery seed. The leaves are most commonly used–chopped fresh and added to salads, used to flavor soups and sauces (especially tomato sauces), frittatas, eggs, fish and potato dishes. Try our cream of lovage soup recipe on our blog. Young leaves are best–anytime after flowering they can take on a bitter taste.
The hollow stalks can get tough as they get larger, but they make fantastic straws especially for tomato juice or bloody Marys. The seeds can be used as a spice similar to fennel seed. I also find them a compatible flavoring for pickling and sauerkraut.
Jerry Traunfeld of The Herbfarm Cookbook suggests its a perfect pairing with greens, delicate fish and apples. Lovage intensifies the greenness and heightens the freshness of spinach, chard and wild nettles. And apples, although contrary in season, contribute their sweet fruit flavor to the pairing to create a “delectable sauce for seafood or pork.”
HOW TO COOK WITH LOVAGE
Rinse lovage stems under cool water and gently shake or pat dry.
Tender stalks can be used whole–both stem and leaves–but older, more hollow stems tend to get tough and stringy. In that case, strip the leaves and reserve the stem for beverage straws. Fresh stems will impart their flavor to beverages, but when dried, their flavor is much reduced.
Alternatively, you can chop the more mature stems and treat them as you would celery ribs in cooked dishes, like soups and sauces.
BEST FLAVOR PAIRINGS
- Seafood (esp. crab and salmon)
- Other Herbs: bay leaf, chervil, chives, dill, fennel, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, tarragon, thyme