Lovage: The (Once) Ubiquitous Herb

Monstrous lovage is the single most frequent herb in the entire collection of books of Apicius, but is seldom seen in conventional cooking today. Here is a brief history of the herb that once dominated the culinary world.

A photo of lovage leaves. Don’t they look like Italian parsley?

In his magnum opus Naturalis historia (Natural History), Pliny the Elder makes a bold claim:

Lovage grows wild in the mountains of Liguria, its native country, but at the present day it is grown everywhere.

Grown everywhere? Really? Unlikely. Still, this herb’s use was extremely widespread: it’s supposed that lovage is the single most popular seasoning in Apicius, the most exhaustive classical cookbook we know of today. But what was it about this herb that made it so popular, and why is it important?

Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is an herb that looks similar to parsley, but with bigger leaves. The plant is, in fact, related to parsley, along with many other well-known herbs and vegetables like carrots, fennel, and dill, along with the now-extinct plant silphium, also a classical favorite. Lovage stalks grow six to eight feet tall — it’s a monstrous plant, really! — and they bear glossy, green, three-lobed leaves that smell like celery, another of its botanical cousins, when crushed.

The actual geographical origin of lovage is uncertain, either being native to southern Europe or the eastern Mediterranean, or to southwestern Asia with naturalized Mediterranean populations. That’s a large and ambiguous geographical area, but with a bit of historical detective work, we can discover more about lovage’s purported origin.

As with many dishes or herbs or, more broadly speaking, any unfamiliar words, we can glean quite a bit from taking a look at their derivation. Much like how epityrum‘s etymology clues us in about how it was eaten, lovage’s name hints at where it could’ve initially been grown.

The Latin name for lovage, levisticum or ligusticum, comes from the word meaning “Ligurian.” Liguria, a coastal region in northwestern Italy, was inhabited by the Ligures, a bevy of indigenous tribes who were, like the Gauls, hostile to Roman interests. As we can see in the opening quote, Pliny confirms that lovage was native to the mountains of Liguria.

Today lovage isn’t a common herb like basil or oregano is, but ancient gardeners cultivated it extensively and held the plant in especially high esteem. The leaves and seeds of the herb were used in sauces and stews, and with vegetable, meat, and seafood dishes (like shrimp isicia). Additionally, like many other herbs, lovage had a smattering of medicinal uses. Though not nearly as abundant in curative properties as other herbs he describes, Pliny wrote that one could use lovage to remedy stomach aches, flatulence, and convulsions.

Save for a few niche online herb vendors or garden stores, lovage is nearly impossible to buy nowadays. Fortunately, there are some convincing substitutes. From what I’ve read, people who have tasted lovage claim it’s a cross between parsley and celery, but stronger.

I’d recommend using two parts celery leaves and one part Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, with a bit more than the recipe calls for. In the recipes I publish on this blog, I’ll automatically convert proportions, but I figured I should set forth the formula I plan to use. Lovage seed, another commonly used part of the plant, can be substituted with celery seed. Curiously, the spice marketed as “celery seed” often contains lovage seed, so maybe we’ve been using this obscure herb all along!

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