It must have been the summer I turned 13 or 14, one of those seemingly endless summers we spent in the South of France as children. An entire month of long days jumping in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, eating Moules Marinieres with Frites and Orangina after said long days at the beach, cycling to the Boulanger in the mornings to pick up fresh baguette for breakfast (to be eaten with a thick layer of salted butter and quince jelly), staring in awe at the huge wall of different types of plain yoghurt in the Hypermarche and ending every dinner, whether at home or in a restaurant, with Mousse au Chocolat.
One afternoon, Helena, my older sister, was sitting opposite me, across the huge dining table in what was our home for that summer. We might have been playing cards or reading a book. Next to us was a big pot of tea. Tea made from lemon verbena. As I learned from my mum during those long summers in France, tea made from lemon verbena (Verveine in French) is what the French drink when they don’t feel well, the way us Germans drink peppermint tea when the first signs of a cold are felt. I admit I felt a certain sophistication drinking Verveine, this exotic yet comforting named tea you could not easily get in Germany and which seemed such a staple in France that every supermarket, however small sold it. I also very much liked its taste, floral and a bit lemony.
So there we are, me and my older sister. I am taking big gulps of what is by now probably only lukewarm tea, I blow up my cheeks with air and I can feel the lukewarm tea sloshing around my mouth. My sister stands up and leans across the table, pretending to slap both my cheeks, the way we always do. My part in this game is to pretend to be surprised and to pretend to spit out all that lukewarm tea. Except that this time, while she may only be pretending to slap my cheeks, her clapping right in front of my face is very real but also very unexpected. So unexpected, it catches me off guard and, before I can do anything to stop this, I have spat all of that lukewarm lemon verbena tea that has been sloshing around my mouth for god knows how long into my sister’s face. And however sophisticated I may have once felt drinking Verveine, all I can think of now when I come across it is my sister’s face that afternoon, the tea dripping right onto the table and Helena too stunned to say anything at first.
Nonetheless, I still like drinking Verveine, especially since discovering you can now easily get it outside of France too – it might not yet be stocked in supermarkets in the UK or Italy, but most specialised tea shops and healthfood stores seem to sell it. I was even more excited when, on a recent trip home, I found out my mum is now growing it herself in our wintergarden (filling the wintergarden with the most intoxicating lemony smell). I carefully cut off a small handful of leaves to take with me to Rome before leaving and spent most of my trip home (plus an extra night in Munich thanks to a storm which turned my normal transit time in Munich of 45 minutes into an overnight affair, sigh) trying to decide what to make with said leaves.
In the end, with only a small handful of leaves, I decided to make lemon verbena shortbread with polenta and Kamut flour. My newly discovered fondness for using polenta in baking is still going strong, I just love the yellow colour and texture it provides. This time I used some Kamut flour, to complement the polenta with Kamut’s buttery flavour and light yellow colour. But, in a pinch, all purpose flour will work here as well. Next time, I might take more than a small handful of leaves and use the lemon verbena to flavour a panna cotta or ice cream or even do a twist on the classic lemon drizzle cake, using a sticky lemon verbena syrup instead.
Lemon Verbena Shortbread
Makes ca. 30 cookies depending on size
140g kamut flour (you can also use all purpose flour)
A pinch of salt
6-8 fresh lemon verbena leaves
100g cold butter, cut into small cubes
1. Whisk together the flour, polenta and pinch of salt in a bowl.
2. Place the sugar and lemon verbena leaves in a food processor and pulse until leaves are finely minced. Add the sugar to the flour bowl.
3. Using a knife or pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour (you could also use your hands to rub the butter into the flour). Once the mixture starts resembling sand, add the egg and quickly work everything together into a smooth dough. Form the dough into a disk, cover in clingfilm and place in the fridge for a 1 hour.
4. Pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius.
5. Remove the dough from the fridge and discard the clingfilm. Place the disk between two sheets of greaseproof paper and roll out to 1/2cm thickness. Cut out cookies with the help of a cookie cutter and place the cookies on a baking tray that has been lined with greaseproof paper (if your kitchen is hot, place the rolled out dough in the fridge or freezer to firm up before cutting the cookies). Make sure you leave some space between the cookies so the hot air of the oven can circulate properly but there is no need for more than 1-2cm between the cookies as they will not spread in the oven. If you have to bake the cookies in batches, place the remaining dough in the fridge until you are ready to bake the next batch (this will help the cookies keep their shape).
5. Bake the cookies for ca. 12 minutes until golden and just starting to brown at the edges. Place on a wire rack to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.