Fresh or dried, herbs add a spice all their own
Although many country folk gathered herbs in the late 18th and 19th centuries to fulfill daily needs, people living in cities had no access to secluded streams, wayside fields, and far-off woods.
As early as 1830, American Shakers were growing, drying, and packaging herbs to ship throughout the United States, and to export to France, the British Isles , and Australia.
The Shaker brothers and sisters who lived at Hancock Village west of Pittsfield, Mass., and at the New Lebanon Community across the New York State border during the 19th century grew acres of various kinds of herbs and gathered wild herbs in abundance.
In their kitchens, Shaker sisters often seasoned fresh vegetables with herbs - a touch of rosemary for broccoli, or chopped dill sprinkled over cucumbers in sour cream. A favorite combination was spinach cooked with fresh rosemary, parsley, and chopped green onion or scallions.
Today most of the Shakers are gone and Hancock Village is now an outdoor museum that tells the story of this hard-working, celibate religious sect, an offshoot of the Quakers, whose proper name was the United Believers in Christ's Second Appearance.
Appropriately, an herb garden, smaller than the one the Shakers tended, still exists, and herbs for cooking and fragrances are packaged and sold at the village.
Before Hancock Village's annual opening in June, herbalists and other interested people were invited to tour the herb garden and stay for a luncheon featuring traditional Shaker dishes as well as new dishes developed along Shaker ''rules,'' as recipes were called.
The food served emphasized the Shakers' favorite herbs for culinary use: sage , dill, rosemary, tarragon, and thyme among them.
Here is the recipe for a tarragon and anchovy spread for crackers, one of the new recipes developed in the Hancock Village kitchen. The amount of sour cream used determines the consistency.
Tarragon and Anchovy Spread 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened 1 2-ounce can anchovies, with oil 2 tablespoons capers 1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon or 4 springs fresh (1/4 teaspoon) 1 teaspoon chopped chives or onion Sour cream
Mix ingredients with sour cream until desired consistency is reached. In Shaker communities, dinner was served at noon and usually did not include soup. Soup was often the main dish for supper, a lighter meal at the end of the day.
The following herb soup recipe from Hancock Shaker Village is especially good when tomatoes are ripe and juicy. Hancock Village Herb Soup 2 quarts rich beef stock, clarified 2 teaspoons salt 2 teaspoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon thyme 1/2 teaspoon marjoram 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin seed (optional, but is nice and spicy) 1/2 teaspoon celery seeds 6 peppercorns 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 large onion, chopped 1/4 cup chopped parsley 2 large tomatoes, ripe, skinned, and chopped
To clarify beef stock, skim off fat when stock is cool. Simmer stock with salt, sugar, herbs, and spices for 30 minutes. Add garlic, onion, parsley, and tomatoes. Cook, simmering, for 15 minutes.
Herb bread, made from a recipe used by the kitchen sisters at Hancock Village , was in high favor at the luncheon. At Shaker meals, bread was accompanied by colorful arrays of jams and jellies, and big dishes of fruit preserves. Hancock Village Herb Bread 2 cups milk 1/4 cup sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 envelopes active dry yeast 2 eggs, well beaten 1 teaspoon powdered nutmeg or cloves 2 teaspoons crumbled dried sage leaves 4 teaspoons caraway seeds 1 teaspoon dried rosemary 1 teaspoon dried dill 7 1/2 to 8 cups presifted flour 1/4 cup melted butter
Scald milk. Stir in sugar and salt and cool to lukewarm. Add yeast. Stir well until completely dissolved. Add eggs, nutmeg, herbs, and 4 cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Add butter and enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough that is easy to handle.
Turn onto lightly floured board. Knead until smooth and elastic. Place dough in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise for about two hours or until doubled in bulk. Grease two loaf pans. Punch dough down. Divide in half. Fill each loaf pan , cover, and let rise again for about one hour or until doubled.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees F. Bake 35 minutes. Makes 2 loaves. (A nice addition is two teaspoons of celery seeds.) Spinach With Rosemary 2 pounds fresh spinach 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary 1 teaspoon chopped parsley 1 tablespoon chopped green onion 2 tablespoons butter Salt and pepper to taste
Wash spinach three or four times to rid it of grit and sand. Chop rather fine and place in a heavy pot. Add rosemary, parsley, onion, and butter and cover well. Let simmer in its own juice until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove cover and add salt and pepper. Serve very hot. Serves 4. (You may want to add just a spoonful of hot water as spinach starts to simmer.)