Celebrity chef Rick Stein counts her among his “food heroes”, Jamie Oliver wouldn’t trust the design of his herb garden to anyone else.
Jekka McVicar started her herb farm over 20 years ago at her home near Bristol; it now has the largest collection of herbs in the UK with more than 600 different varieties. When it won a Chelsea gold medal in 1995, it was the first organic herb farm to do so.
Her grandmother, Ruth Lowinsky, wrote cookery books in the 1950s, and taught her daughter, Jekka’s mother, how to use herbs in cooking. In those days anyone with a bit of garden would be growing some veg or some herbs. “I can remember sitting up at the kitchen table at our house in Chew Magna and chopping herbs when I was still very young. Before I even went to school I knew how to make mint sauce.”
By the age of 17 the mint sauce-making toddler, had become a bit of a rebel. She joined a progressive rock band called “Marsupilami” whom she met in College.
“I was a flautist,” she says. “And for two or three years I had a wonderful time gigging with the band. We played the Isle of Wight festival with Bob Dylan, and we even performed at the very first Glastonbury Festival.” They made a couple of albums but Jekka decided to move on. She worked for a while at the drama department of the BBC before finding work at Tumblers Bottom Herb Farm in Somerset, now known as ‘The Curious Gardeners’.
Jekka was at home looking after two small children, Hannah and Alistair, when a friend asked for French tarragon for an Elizabeth David recipe. “I thought, Hmmm, she can’t get hold of that. Perhaps there is a business idea here.” In those days it was hard to find anything other than common herbs like parsley, mint and chives either in supermarkets or garden centres.
She converted the semi into a nursery, with every inch of space used for herbs. Her husband, Mac told her “Either stop or move and make this a proper business”. ……So they moved and the farm has gone from the original one-acre plot to two and a half acres, the extra ground being bought from the royalties of her book. Jekka has just recently republished a new extended version of her Complete Herb Book, the original having been launched back in 1994.
“I realised there was a lot more I could get into the book. I’ve included 38 more herbs, and the book has been beautifully designed so you can fully appreciate both the culinary and medicinal properties of each plant.”
But it’s the host of celebrity chefs who have made Jekka a real household name. Rick Stein, Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver have recognised her worth. Jekka has created a herb garden for Jamie in his Essex home. “I then designed a vegetable garden, and we have recently created an orchard with wild herbs and a herb border.
Jekka says of Jamie Oliver “He’s the most lovely bloke, he’s full of energy and enthusiasm. In real life he is exactly as he appears on the television. He came up with a great idea to sink containers planted with herbs into the gravel driveway at his house. It’s ideal because chefs are so tough on herbs, they cut enormous chunks off them. This makes it easier to lift the pots up and replace them with new plants from time to time.”
There would seem to be a gap in the TV schedule for a gardening programme just devoted to herbs and Jekka would be the ideal presenter. She has a confidence and enthusiasm which is quite charming.
Jekka McVicar’s Complete Herb Book is published by Kyle Cathie, priced £25
Jekka McVicar’s Herb Farm, Rose Cottage, Shellards Lane, Alveston, Bristol BS35 3SY 01454 418878
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018