Herbarium is a directory of one hundred herbs. Each plant is treated the same way, with two to three paragraphs of useful and interesting background, anecdotes and occasionally cooking advice. Plus details on the side as to how to grow the herb, what to eat it with and a recipe suggestion (if it’s edible), and how it might heal.
And yet it’s much, much more than the anodyne description above.
The author, Caz Hildebrand, and her design studio Here. have created an absolutely beautiful compendium of herbs based, in part, upon Medieval ‘herbals’ – illustrated books of herbs used by apothecaries. In this modern update the wood cut prints or fine illustrations of yesteryear have been replaced by arresting, contemporary graphics and patterns. This is a book to refer to for when curious, but also to potter through at any point, mindlessly (or mindfully?) appreciating the imagery and design, whilst barely registering the shape of the words (though of course both serif and san serif fonts suit the occasion perfectly).
It’s worth noting the decision to apply a loose definition of ‘herbs’: i.e. “plants that are useful to humans for flavouring, food, medicine or perfume” or, more romantically, “in many cases, herbs are simply weeds in the right place at the right time.”
A narrower, purely culinary definition might not have provided the content needed to make this book worthwhile. In fact, whilst plain vanilla herbs like basil, chives and parsley are given quality treatment, it’s the lesser known herbs that standout – Rice Paddy Herbs, St John’s Wort, Woodruff and Salad Burnet, for example.
Hildebrand closes her introduction by writing that “encouraging their appropriate use – with justified appreciation for their beauty – is the purpose of this book.” It certainly achieves that …
… and I can’t even fault Herbarium for the fact that, actually, more than merely being book, it is really a calling card for the design agency and the launchpad for a brand; for numerous other products to springs from the illustrations and design found within – cards, wrapping paper, homeware and more.
They’ll appeal to many. But, if I were you, I’d get the original book first.
Format and design
Where to begin? You can tell from the striking, debossed cover that this is a book with design running through every spinal thread, fibre of paper and droplet of ink. Surely a shoe-in for whatever the yearly book design awards are, this is an absolute fitty. A ten out of ten, it’ll go front and centre on your cookshelf.
Recipes that tempt
There are cooking suggestions when relevant, though this is not really a recipe book. What herb are you particularly interested in? Chervil? Perilla? Meadowsweet? Goldenrod? (nope, new to me too), there are details and designs for one hundred of them.
I do think the information provided is useful, though. I’m intrigued, for example, at the description of Salad Burnet’s “cucumber-cum-melon” flavour, which might work as well crushed and added to a gin and tonic, as it would stirred into mushroom soup or chopped over broad beans glossed with butter.
Who is it for?
Kitchen gardeners, wannabe kitchen gardeners, coffee table book enthusiasts, loo library curators, curious cooks. Also, fans of design and things that look nice.
Will make an excellent gift.