the gentlewoman

Jekka McVicar

The pioneering herb farmer from England

The pioneering herb farmer
from England

Jekka McVicar

She’s considered an unmatched expert by the UK’s top chefs, and she’s won every horticultural award going, but the enterprising British herb grower Jekka McVicar has never shied away from controversy. In 2009 she put up a fight at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show when her ornamental gnome, Borage, was deemed an unsuitable addition to her garden. More recently, she had a run-in with the Food Standards Agency over the natural sweetener stevia – one of the 650 herb varieties she grows at her famous farm in southwest England.

Many people in their early 60s would be planning for retirement, but not Jekka. She may be in the process of scaling down the farm, but only because she’s setting up a herb academy in its place.

Text by Andrew Tucker
Portraits by Paul Wetherell

Jekka McVicar is having a bad herb day. The drip-feed system at her south Gloucestershire nursery, Jekka’s Herb Farm, isn’t functioning properly, plus she’s coping with a bad knee. In fact, the past six months have been hard, as the British weather has fried, drenched and frozen her 650-strong herb collection. “Then the slugs blitzed everything, then squirrels,” she complains. “I had to get someone in to shoot them.”

Sitting before me in a worn chambray shirt and jeans is the woman the press have dubbed the Queen of Herbs, though she seems more war veteran than royalty. At first appearance, she could be a middle-class mum with calloused hands, a former Greenham Common protestor, or a hippie-ish art teacher. But hold on: beneath that kindly expression is a woman with the manic energy of a street preacher and total belief in herself and her crusade to show the world that herbs aren’t solely for garnishing food but also a mainstay of our evolution. “When I first started showing herbs in horticultural shows in 1991, there was only one other exhibitor,” she says. “Even then, I wanted people to understand how these plants have multiple personalities, both culinary and medicinal, so I’d give them labels that said things like, ‘Thymus vulgaris: Common thyme. A natural antiseptic and great with potatoes.’”

Jekka is a herb grower, not a herbalist. “True, in the 18th century I’d have probably been branded a witch, as I know the medical properties of many of the plants I raise. Personally, I wouldn’t go to a herbalist; it’s unregulated, like homeopathy. I actually go to a brilliant Chinese doctor who’s also conventionally trained, so get I the best of both worlds. I don’t want a touchy-feely lecture.”

Touchy-feely McVicar is not. Although Jekka’s Herb Farm is located down a narrow country lane, there’s still the distant drone of the motorway in the background, and try as you might to disguise a polytunnel, it will always be a tube of plastic sheeting. “I desperately try to make herbs real, not twee, nor folksy,” she says. “They look good, they smell good, they taste good, they do you good. We’re not all tussie-mussies and scented handkerchiefs; this is a working nursery where we get our hands dirty.”

The farm itself is a modest affair of about four acres, and unlike the artistic gardens that regularly win her prizes at Chelsea and other flower shows, it’s a little rough around the edges, in all the right ways. “I’d be the first to admit that these plants don’t have the immediate impact of a flower garden, but they’re still very beautiful, and so sensual,” says Jekka. “They perfume the air around you.” The plot resembles a giant aromatic patchwork quilt: tussocky thymes, dwarf rosemary bushes and low-growing myrtles knit together in an undulating carpet of soft greens and yellows peppered with flecks of blossom and drowsy bees. These are surrounded by overgrown hedgerows full of native British species such as mulleins (used to treat asthma) and comfreys (useful in fertiliser) that aren’t all for sale but that Jekka values for their inherent properties. “I’m a big fan of foraging,” she says, “but it’s something I’m loath to teach, as you really need to know what you’re doing. I recently saw a TV chef confuse Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) with dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) – one can be eaten as asparagus, the other can give you a kidney inflammation.”

With the largest collection of popular edible herb varieties in the UK (the Chelsea Physic Garden in London has the largest but is more medicinally inclined), Jekka’s Herb Farm sells to the public over 35 different varieties of mint, 30 types of rosemary, 20 of oregano and 50 of thyme, plus a whole lot of weird and wonderful oddities. “My rule is, I’ll grow pretty much anything here, provided it doesn’t require false conditions such as artificial light and heating and isn’t likely to cross-pollinate with our native flora and fauna.”

Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), which has declined in popularity as Brits have spent less time in the kitchen, is one plant found on the farm. “It’s amazing, as the leaves allow you to cut down on sugar in cooking,” says Jekka. “When you’re stewing fruit, for instance.” There’s also the virtually forgotten meu (Meum athamanticum), a British native and cousin of the carrot that was used as a food source by Scottish crofters in less abundant times. The farm has also been successful in growing highly fragrant cardamom and Thai lemon grass. “We only get the stalks commercially here, because the leaves harbour too many pests for importation, but they’re just as useful in cookery,” says Jekka. She’s also successfully raised the hallucinogenic mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), a favourite of witches since biblical times. “That’ll make you fly.”

Jekka was unable to receive her recent lifetime achievement award from the Gardener’s Media Guild as she was away on her first holiday in 12 years. Here, she is pictured with her golden retriever, Hampton.

This strange medley of the native and exotic brings the professionals and the public to Jekka’s Herb Farm, from elderly couples out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon who might leave clutching a pot of thyme destined for the patio to premier-league chefs and the occasional new ager. “We did have a warlock turn up once with his two acolytes, and he got most offended that I could only offer him lemon verbena instead of the wild vervain (Verbena officinalis) that’s used a lot in witchcraft,” she says. “Before he stormed off, he muttered something and scratched some symbols in the gravel of the drive, and from that moment on we started having accidents. My husband fell off a lorry with a trolley, I cut my hand badly, my son broke his leg and my daughter her arm. Although I’m essentially a sceptic, we were advised to plant a rowan tree near the spot and tie some red thread in the branches, which seemed to do the trick.”

Jekka’s mission to widen the use and understanding of herbs extends beyond the kitchen garden; she’s got over a dozen books, both horticultural and culinary, to her name. And she’s an excellent chef. In 2011 it was widely reported in the British press that the Queen had given her new daughter-in-law, Kate Middleton, a copy of Jekka’s Herb Cookbook (2010) – perhaps she has since perfected the piquant nasturtium butter that improves a grilled salmon. “Yeah, I’m a pretty good cook,” admits Jekka, “though I’m from the lob-it-in school of cuisine. I make some pretty wicked puddings – bay ice cream, basil panna cotta, et cetera – but fiddly things like meringues aren’t my forte. I’m adventurous, I like experimenting with flavours, and I don’t mind if it’s a bit of a disaster on occasion.”

Some of the more tempting dishes in her repertoire include her mother’s asparagus-and-chervil soup, in which the herb adds a delicate anise flavour and acts as a digestive, spicy fishcakes featuring the evergreen perennial Vietnamese coriander and a great recipe for almond-and-lemon-balm-stuffed apples in which the stuffing oozes out of the baked fruit like lemony marzipan.

Jekka’s personal culinary history has deep roots. Her maternal grandmother, Ruth Lowinsky, wrote cookery books from the 1930s onwards, and Jekka was able to make mint sauce with leaves picked straight from the garden before she learned her alphabet.

“I was brought up in Chew Magna in Somerset, and we were very much a roast dinner type of family,” she explains. “The Sunday roast was eked out in different ways until Thursday; on Friday we ate fish, and Saturday sausages if we’d been good. I can remember as a teenager going to the supermarket was like a excursion, you know, wheeling a trolley and buying those pre-made dehydrated Vesta curries with the tiny shrivelled prawns that looked as if they’d never been alive in the first place.”

By the age of 17, Jekka had become something of a rebel, joining a progressive rock band called Marsupilami as a flautist and singer. She played the Isle of Wight Festival on the same bill as Bob Dylan and appeared at the very first Glastonbury in 1970. In fact, a diligent Google image search will uncover the band’s first album cover from the previous year, featuring a rather diffident-looking McVicar in an oversized cardigan. “Fashion has never been too high on my list of priorities,” she says. In her world, it’s all about farmer’s tans that leave stripes above your wellies. “But I do make an effort to go to the hairdresser regularly, and I can’t overstress the importance of having a great-fitting bra, especially when you’re doing a lot of physical work.”

Quitting the festival circuit in 1971, Jekka went on to work for the BBC drama department in London. Expertise gained there with early video technology led to a job working for the local police in Bristol. “Basically, I started their video unit, which involved everything from training officers to appear on screen to documenting crime scenes and being hung upside down out of a helicopter to monitor traffic flow,” she explains. It was the last of these that made her retire from the force: “I became pregnant with my daughter Hannah, and being strapped to the back of a motorbike with a camera probably wasn’t the best idea. Plus, in the early 1980s, the concept of maternity cover wasn’t as evolved as it is today.”

“We’re not all tussie-mussies and scented handkerchiefs; this is a working nursery. We get our hands dirty.”

In 1984, with two small children in the picture, she and her husband, Ian (known as Mac), transformed the back garden into a nascent business. Inspired by Elizabeth David’s landmark recipe for tarragon chicken, they began cultivating French tarragon, which must be grown from cuttings. “It only tastes like posh grass if you grow it from seed,” Jekka says. In what was essentially a recipe for roast chicken, David kneaded the herb into a mixture of butter and garlic and placed this inside the bird before putting it in the oven. Once cooked, the chicken was flambéed in brandy, and then the juice was thickened with cream to create a rich, tarragon-flavoured sauce. “You could say that was one of the main reasons I started growing herbs,” Jekka says. “At that point there were no fresh herbs in supermarkets and only a few at the garden centre.” By the end of the first year, she was selling to London’s fancy Fortnum & Mason department store, and in 1987, the family decamped to the other side of the motorway, leaving behind their suburban plot for a ramshackle cottage in Alveston, south Gloucestershire, that the couple restored while simultaneously growing the business.

From that point, the company flourished in tandem with Britain’s interest in food. “When we started, people were really suspicious of the word ‘organic’, and if anything it was a disincentive to customers,” she says. Twenty-two years later, her perseverance was rewarded when she received the 2009 Lawrence Medal, the Royal Horticultural Society’s award for the best exhibit shown that year – effectively the plant world’s equivalent of Best Picture at the Academy Awards. “And it was all the more important because we’d proved that you can be the best without resorting to artificial fertilisers and pest control.”

Chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Raymond Blanc and Heston Blumenthal have visited the farm, each with a different culinary agenda that Jekka has been in some way able to fulfil. “I met Jamie before he was really famous, at the end of the ’90s, when we were both at the same exhibition,” she says. “I was on my way to fill up my watering can, and I went up to him and said: ‘You know absolutely nothing about herbs, and I’m a herb farmer’. He came and looked at my stand and was blown away. A few weeks later, he turned up in a car full of people, took some photographs, and I ended up in his book. Since then we’ve become firm friends. I’ve designed the herb garden at his home at Thurrock in Essex and the vegetable garden that was in the Jamie at Home series in 2007.”

Although it’s hard to imagine Jekka being in awe of anyone, she’s full of praise for Oliver and the other chefs that have turned up in person. “Their culinary roots are as diverse as could be, but they’re united in their phenomenal attention to detail on every level. Jamie is very much about questioning things. Raymond, if possible, is even more interested in the minutiae of cookery – he’s currently fascinated by the medicinal properties of herbs and how they can aid digestion. I’ve just designed a herb garden for him at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, his HQ and hotel and restaurant in Oxfordshire, which is very much based on the herbs his mother used when he was a child – lemon balm, hyssop, summer savory, wormwood... And as for Heston’s visit, I’ve never been so scared in my life. He just kept putting things in his mouth, not just the culinary classics but things more commonly used in medicine.”

Blumenthal remembers their encounter well. “I was really excited, wanting to pick every leaf and bud,” he says. “When I put them in my mouth, Jekka kept shouting, ‘Don’t touch that!’ It was all very Alice in Wonderland.” If Heston survived his encounter with Jekka unscathed, other factions within the food industry don’t always get off so lightly. One of the most innocuous-looking plants in the herb farm’s collection of oddities is the diminutive stevia, or sweetleaf, a calorie-free sugar substitute that’s 30 times sweeter than conventional counterparts and being widely marketed under the brand names Truvia and Pure Via. “I’ve grown it here for 15 years and sold it without any problem at all,” says Jekka, “but after I provided 2,000 plants for the launch of Truvia in the UK, I got a rap on the knuckles, as apparently it’s classed by the UK’s Food Standards Agency as a ‘novel’ food” – that is, one that has no history of “significant” consumption in the EU prior to 1997 and is therefore illegal to sell as an edible. This makes Jekka hopping mad. “I mean, this is a plant that was used 2,000 years ago by the Aztecs. It can stop you getting sugar rushes and prevent hunger pangs. And as we’re all so obese, surely this is a great addition to a garden and a diet?” She pauses. “But we have to remember that a lot of agricultural land in the UK is devoted to sugar beet farming, so I guess this is actually a political matter. Coca-Cola’s already farming thousands of acres of stevia in South America, but I can only sell it as a medicinal or ornamental plant if I charge VAT on top. That’s not fair.”

Jekka’s Herb Farm has always been organic, more out of pragmatism than green politics. “I initially became organic because I was growing herbs with two toddlers roaming about, and I didn’t want piles of chemicals lying around,” she says. Pragmatism is also behind the peat-free nature of her farm. “Of the 650 varieties we sell, only four naturally grow in a peat substrate,” she says. “So what’s the point of growing plants in a medium that’s fundamentally unnatural? They’ll only end up dying when people get them home.”

Her gripes against supermarkets are the same as everyone’s – the ills of food miles, the insanity of strawberries in December. “We need to educate the public more. If they ask for it, the supermarkets will capitulate in the end.” Not that she’s entirely averse to benefiting from a supermarket situation. These days, a lot of French tarragon is imported from Israel, and “last summer there was an inter-nursery dispute in Israel, which affected the imports, particularly of French tarragon,“ she says. “We did very well out of that.”

As proof of how education can change supermarket practice, Jekka cites Delia Smith – her ultimate food hero. “I can remember when Delia used coriander in a recipe in the mid-’90s – we couldn’t grow enough of the stuff. She was absolutely pivotal to the way people use herbs in cooking now.” In fact, in 1994, Smith provoked a British coriander crisis when a series of recipes in her Summer Collection book and TV series listed it as an ingredient and supermarkets sold out nationwide. More recently, Jekka says it’s largely thanks to Jamie Oliver that flat-leaved parsley has become so popular. “Jamie’s made people relax, too. It’s a handful of this or a handful of that, rather than four or five leaves chopped up nicely.”

It so happens that Jekka herself is stepping into a more formal role in educating the nation, downscaling her farm in order to reopen it next year as something completely different – a “herboretum”. Taking etymological inspiration from the Latin arboretum, the word for a collection of trees brought together for study, Jekka’s herboretum will aim to do the same for herbs. While she still sells books and seeds online, she closed down her mail-order service in October, and from the end of March she’ll open the farm for people to browse and buy plants only on Fridays. Beginning in April, Jekka will channel all her energies into her herb school and establishing the herboretum, scheduled for completion in spring 2014.

She is, in part, responding to a gap in the workforce. “Colleges no longer teach practical horticulture,” she says. “I’m not talking about gardening or keeping an allotment, which the British do amazingly well, but actually running a commercial nursery – there’s a 20-year gap between us and the next generation of plantsmen and -women.” But equally, she says, she looks forward to a change of focus. “I’m really excited about growing plants to full size rather than having to sell them on, although I’ll never stop propagating, as I love it so much.” She says she can’t wait to see the raised beds go in and hopes to be trundling around them in a wheelchair in her 80s. “Also, I’m constantly getting invited overseas to work on different projects, and I’d like a day off from lumbering round with a watering can.”

Indeed, her plants are wilting in the late afternoon sun, and we head off to inspect a polytunnel. On the way, she points out herbs, from the ordinary to the arcane: homegrown curry leaves, variegated Vietnamese fish mint, Szechuan peppers (virtually impossible to find fresh in the UK, even in the heart of London’s Chinatown), a new variety of chilli with the size of a pea and the punch of a boxing glove. There is also a suspicious number of varieties named after Jekka herself. Is this a form of culinary cannibalism? “Well, it’s just a perk of the job,” she says, laughing.

Jekka McVicar
The pioneering herb farmer from England

Text by Andrew Tucker
Portraits by Paul Wetherell

Hair and make-up: Liz Daxauer at Caren
Photographic assistance: Chris Miller
Production: Lucie Newbegin at M.A.P.

This profile was originally published in
The Gentlewoman n° 7, Spring and Summer 2013.