Cooking with Seasonal Savory
Winter and Summer Savory: Both these are so well known, (being entertained as constant Inhabitants in our Gardens) that they need no description.
17th-century English herbalist
Both winter savory (Satureja montana) and summer savory (S. hortensis) are popular among herb gardeners today, but they are not as widely used as they could and should be. So tasty are they when paired with beans and other legumes that both species are referred to as “the bean herb”. In France, where they grow in abundance in the foothills and mountains of Provence, they are known as poivre d’âne (donkey’s pepper) and pebre d’ail (garlic pepper). Savories flavor many dishes and also contribute to the delightful, variable blend called herbes de Provence, which also usually includes marjoram, thyme, and lavender.
Winter savory is a shrubby hardy perennial growing 6 to 12 inches high and wide, with a tasty, hot bite to its thick, glossy green, lance-shaped leaves and white flowers. Summer savory is a slender annual, growing from 1 to 11/2 feet tall on reddish branched stems, with narrow, pointed, dark green leaves containing a milder resinous heat and pale pink to white flowers strewn like pinpoints over the foliage. The leaves acquire an attractive purplish tinge in late summer.
History and folklore
Summer savory is native to the Mediterranean basin of southern Europe, and winter savory, as its species name, montana, implies, to the mountains of southern Europe and North Africa. Savory, along with chervil, coriander, dill, garlic, and parsley, was on the emperor Charlemagne’s list of seventy-eight tasty herbs to be grown in his royal gardens in a.d. 812. The Romans used winter savory as we use pepper today, and it is said that they introduced the herb to England. Medieval walled gardens held savory, hyssop, and parsley in company with beans, onions, leeks, and garlic; the herbs must have gone a long way to punch up the monotonous, plain, starch-filled diet of the poor as well as lend a robust tang to the meatier diet of the rich. Savory also grew in herb “gardens of delight” kept by the leisured rich, and it was used in sweet syrups and conserves to soothe the throat. Several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century garden writers suggest savory as a component of a fragrant garden.
In garden folklore of the Middle Ages, a garland fashioned of savory leaves and flowers was worn as a crown or cap to revive the wearer from drowsiness. The satyrs of Greek mythology–lascivious woodland deities with the horns, ears, and legs of a goat–also were depicted wearing crowns of savory. Because of this, savory’s generic name, Satureja, has been linked with the word “satyr”, but apparently it is actually derived from the Latin satur, meaning “full” or “satiated”. Both savories were believed to affect the sex drive, but in opposite ways: winter savory was thought to decrease it, summer savory, to increase it. Which kind do you suppose the satyrs wore?
Savory is a choice herb to grow near beehives because of the excellent honey it produces, and a poultice of the leaves is said to alleviate the pain from a beesting. A tea of either summer or winter savory leaves has been gargled to assuage a sore throat or sipped to relieve diarrhea and indigestion. In The Honest Herbal, Varro E. Tyler notes that although summer savory tea is used in Europe to treat excessive thirst in diabetics, overall, not too much should be expected from it medicinally.
A sunny location, good garden soil, and adequate water are keys to producing flavorful summer savory leaves. The seed germinates quickly, whether sown 1/4 inch deep outdoors after the threat of frost is past or indoors in flats six weeks before the expected date of the last frost. When the weather has settled, transplant indoor seedlings outdoors after hardening them off for a few days. (Planted in lightweight, fast-draining potting soil, summer savory also grows nicely in containers.) Thin direct-sown seedlings to 6 inches apart so that mature plants can support one another if they get leggy. Three or four plants should be enough to supply a small family with several harvests during the growing season as well as a final harvest for drying. When the plants are growing well in midsummer, snip off the top 4 inches of foliage; new sets of leaves will soon develop, and you can make another cutting in about three weeks. If the plants tend to flop over, mound the soil around their bases or stake them to hold them erect. By allowing the plants to set seed, you may find volunteer plants appearing in the garden next spring.
Where summers are hot, summer savory flowers and goes to seed while plants are still small. In this situation, winter savory is a better choice. Cut back the tips often to stimulate the young, tender growth, whose taste is milder–more like the lighter taste of summer savory–than that of the mature leaves.
Buying winter savory in 3-inch pots is the most expedient way to adorn your garden with this slow-growing semievergreen herb. You can also propagate it from cuttings, by layering, or by root division in spring as well as from seed planted indoors six weeks before the last frost. Lightly press the seeds into a starter mix but do not cover, as they need light to germinate. When the weather warms, transplant the seedlings to a sunny spot outdoors; give them average well-drained sandy soil and set them 10 to 12 inches apart. Winter savory requires less water than summer savory. Prune established plants in spring and again in midsummer to maintain their shape. Winter savory is short-lived and should be replaced with new plants every three years. In zones colder than Zone 5, it is best grown in containers and overwintered indoors.
The genus Satureja comprises thirty species of annual herbs and perennial subshrubs native to northern temperate regions. In addition to winter and summer savory, several are of interest for their use in the kitchen or the landscape.
Creeping savory (S. spicigera) looks like a prostrate version of white-flowering winter savory; its glossy green leaves are less hot than winter savory but a shade hotter than summer savory. Native to southwestern Asia, creeping savory is hardy to Zone 7. Pink savory (S. thymbra) is a wiry Mediterranean herb that grows to 1 foot high with green pointed leaves and clear pink flowers in globular whorls along the stems. It is also known as barrel sweetener because Cretans used it in an infusion to cleanse and freshen wine barrels before refilling them with the next vintage. It is sometimes an ingredient of za’atar, the Middle Eastern dried spice blend that also includes edible sumac and sesame seeds and is commonly spread on pita bread. Lemon savory (S. biflora) is a tender perennial rambler from South America with white flowers and small, rounded leaves that have a heavy lemon scent. It’s used for tea and for flavoring fish and poultry. Costa Rican mint bush (S. viminea), native to the West Indies, is a tender shrubby perennial growing to 4 feet tall with light green, rounded, mint-scented leaves. It makes a rather bitter, medicinal-tasting tea. Yerba buena (S. douglasii), whose common name means “good herb” in Spanish, is an evergreen perennial trailer with menthol-scented, rounded, scalloped leaves on stems up to 2 feet long and white or purple flowers. (Yerba buena is the Spanish name for several species of Mentha as well.) Also known as Oregon tea, S. douglasii is native to the woodlands of western North America from British Columbia to California and is hardy to Zone 8. It was used by California Native American groups as a medicinal tea.
A savory landscape
Winter savory makes a handsome, dense edging for the front of the garden border, and its mounding habit makes it an excellent camouflage for woody, bare plant bases. Creeping savory is a thick cover that is attractive spilling over and softening the hard edges of garden beds. Combine it with other low-growing ground covers such as the gray-leaved thymes Thymus praecox subsp. arcticus ‘Britannicus’ or T. glabrescens subsp. glabrescens, which is also called ‘Loevyanus’ thyme. Summer savory is too rangy to make a design statement in the garden, so plant it next to herbs that do, such as bushy ‘African Blue’ basil; pebbly, gray-leaved garden sage; midgreen, bushy Greek oregano; or glistening, dark-green-leaved germander. Costa Rican mint bush makes a fragrant allée planted in sentried lines on either side of a path. It also grows well in containers.
A savory kitchen
Perhaps the best and simplest way to experience the fine Mediterranean flavor of savory is to toss hot, cooked fresh green beans with the herb and a little butter, salt, pepper, and a dash of lemon juice. To intensify the flavor, throw a handful of fresh tops into the cooking water as well. In summer, choose freshly harvested summer savory or the young leaves of winter savory. In warm regions, winter savory–true to its name–will still be available in the garden for snipping when summer savory is but a memory, but elsewhere, you’ll need to have dried summer savory on hand in the pantry come cold weather. I dry mine in the microwave, placing clean branches in a single layer between two paper towels and then, a minute at a time, microwaving on full power until the leaves are crisp-dry.
The winter and summer savory duo is excellent with all manner of dried or shell beans, from white and black beans to flageolets and favas. Lentils, especially the tiny speckled lentilles du Puy, also benefit from savory’s rounded, pungent taste. Savory’s essential oils are similar to those in thyme and oregano, so both of these herbs make good companions. Savory’s heat also helps to marry the various flavors in a dish. Start with a small quantity and gradually add more until its flavor suits you.
A few sprigs of either summer or winter savory make an interesting replacement for the thyme in a bouquet garni. Either herb pairs well with potatoes and tomatoes, poultry, rabbit, beef, and fish. Chopped savory, along with a sprinkling of marjoram and parsley, may be folded into an omelet or piperade for a satisfying luncheon or supper dish. Or try it in a spring vegetable soup made with a few potatoes, a good measure of fresh fava beans, and a little bouquet of fresh winter savory, thyme, and a bay leaf.
Sarriette is a creamy cheese produced in Provence that is flavored with summer or winter savory, while Banon is a soft sheep or goat cheese round that is coated with savory. You can make your own version using chopped leaves of either winter or summer savory with domestic sheep or goat cheese; serve the cheeses spread on slices of toasted baguette accompanied by refreshing and appetite-provoking aperitifs such as Lillet, pastis, Campari, or Dubonnet.
Carole Saville is a food and garden writer who lives in California. Her most recent book is Exotic Herbs from Henry Holt and Company.
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