It’s very late in the season—it’s well into November, and there is snow in the forecast—but my heat-loving lemon verbena has been going strong throughout this mild, beautiful fall. Usually I spend days in September and October making preserves, but this year has been very short on time. I was able to make two lovely batches of crabapple jelly, however, and hoped—needed, really—to make at least one batch of lemon verbena jelly before fall turned toward winter.
Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) is a tropical plant of the verbena family, native to South America where it grows as a perennial shrub, but cultivated in northern regions as an annual. It is one of my favourite herbs, mainly because of its strong, sweet, lemony scent. It makes the finest jelly—complex, multilayered and winey—but can also be preserved in oil and vinegar, infused into butter, dried for tea, and used fresh in baking.
I’ve been making lemon verbena jelly since 2018, and use a recipe from American culinary herb expert Marge Clark’s beautiful book The Best of Thymes (1997). In 2019 my lemon verbena jelly won first prize in the Jams, Jellies and Pickling competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, the first (and so far, only, a lapse I hope to rectify next year) time I’ve entered any of my preserves, which means it’s an excellent recipe and a superb herb.
Making herb jellies is quite straightforward. It revolves around making an infusion of the bruised leaves of a given herb in boiling water, a thing for which most highly flavoured herbs (perhaps the best known being mint) are well suited. The herb leaves are strained out, and the infusion is then jellied, bottled and processed to be safely shelf-stable. Some people complain about the quantity of sugar that goes into most jellies, but (as preserving experts will attest), sugar is one of the ingredients that keeps jellies shelf-stable for long periods. I preserve my jellies in small (125 ml) jars, because I find a little goes a long way. Lemon verbena jelly spread on fresh sourdough toast is one of my favourite things to eat, and one little jar can cover a month’s worth of weekend toasts. Most of these little jars will be given as gifts to friends, but I will keep two or three for toast.
Yesterday I went out in the low-angled November sunlight, cut the green branches from my lemon verbena, and stripped them at the library table while the aromatic oils filled the whole house. I chopped the leaves, poured boiling water over them, and let them rest while preparing my canning jars. Then I made the jelly, stirring it to a high boil, and ladled it into jars before processing it in a hot water bath. This recipe always makes nine little jars, and I counted nine satisfying ‘pings’ as their lids snapped down after processing.
I have a deep and enduring love of culinary herbs, and grow dozens of varieties, mostly in containers on the sunny decks and verandas of our otherwise mainly shady property. Next year, however, I plan to turn our front garden into a (somewhat) formal herb garden, so some of the classic perennial herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme, Angelica, will have more room to root. This year I planted some of the more shade tolerant herbs (Sweet Cicely, lemon balm, lemon thyme) in our back garden, and have recently mulched them in hopes they’ll survive the winter. I have also had good luck with herbs overwintering in containers (especially lemon thyme, tarragon and winter savoury).
A few weeks ago I cut bunches of the herbs I use most in the winter (sage, rosemary, tarragon, lemon thyme, oregano, sweet marjoram) and hung them to dry in the garage. Later this week I’ll crumble them into jars, each handful a promise of life returning after the long winter.
Here’s a bonus picture of eight 1950s-era Jane Ray (Fire King) teacups and saucers I found on the shelf at Value Village a week ago, bundled in sets of four for $5.99 each. This was an improbable find—Jadeite, remains highly collectible and it has become uncommon to find pieces at thrift stores—but I found them deposited on a shelf in the board games section, suggesting they had been picked up and then set down by one of the resellers who prowls the local thrifts. Maybe there’s not enough of a margin on Jadeite teacups, or perhaps they’d been set down because they are unmarked, but I was happy to add them to the small collection of Jadeite I’ve built up since buying my first Anchor Hocking Swirl bowl for $3 at an Eastern Ontario yard sale in 1996. I still use that beautiful bowl every time I make bread (it’s my proofing bowl), and we use Jadeite saucers almost every day as sandwich plates.