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It's thyme: Fresh herb sprigs being prepared for a fennel and thyme tart. Photo: Jennifer Soo

Richard Cornish

What constitutes a ''sprig'' of any herb? V. Davidson

To define the word sprig is easy enough, for it is any small branch or offshoot of a plant. But trying to define sprig in culinary terms is like trying to win a baton race using live eels - a slippery affair and perhaps a waste of time.

This is because the concentration and composition of the aromatic compounds in the essential oils of herbs are determined by many variables - the cultivar of the herb, the soil, the season, the growing conditions and when it was harvested.

Take rosemary, for example. The new sprigs of rosemary that are soft and sticky to touch in spring will give a different flavour to food after they have spent a season growing under the summer sun and then the frosts of winter.

What size sprig to use with what dish comes down to experience. I suggest cooks bite into the herbs before cooking with them to assess their intensity. Then the cook can work out whether they want the herb to sit in the background or take a leading role. Being able to judge this takes experience. These days, when the amount of herb is crucial to a dish, more recipe writers use spoon measures.

Where can I buy salep? J. Mills

The other day I was being shown around some glorious bush by the traditional owners, and the conversation came around to orchids. In that part of the country, the women and children would, and still do, dig for native terrestrial orchids, the roots of which look like translucent jelly beans. These they roast to make a nutty-tasting, delicious little dinner.

In Turkey, they harvest their native orchid, Orchis mascula, and turn the roots into a powder they use, with mastic, to enrich sticky ice-cream. The powder is salep and contains a polysaccharide called glucomannan.

I have tried to track down salep powder made from ground orchids roots, and the best I can do is a Canadian website, secure.herbies-herbs.com.

There are powders called salep available in shops, but these are substitutes made with wheat or corn starch. You can buy glucomannan sourced from another plant called konjac. This is sold as a health supplement in health food stores.

Since moving back to Australia from France, my husband and I have had no luck in finding the cheese chaumes. J. Roy

Chaumes, pronounced ''shom'', is a pasteurised cow's milk from Saint-Antoine-de-Breuilh, in the Dordogne area of France. Made in two-kilogram wheels, its rind is washed with cultures and natural food dye, giving it its apricot tinge, a fruity, nutty aroma, and a creamy interior. In Melbourne, try Leo's Hartwell and Heidelberg, and in Sydney, the Fourth Village Providore in Mosman.

Letters

Thanks to R. Franklin, who wrote in with a story about fermenting tomato sauce caused by a dodgy cafe operator. ''Many years ago in my student days I was a waitress at a rather filthy hamburger cafe in Kings Cross, where the owner watered down the tomato sauce. It was during the Vietnam War and many soldiers on R&R came in. One day one of them picked up the plastic tomato sauce container, in the shape of a tomato, shook it and a streak of fermented tomato sauce shot across the room into the hair of another diner!''

Thank you so much to everyone who wrote in regarding the reference to a leek sliced lengthways as looking like a vegan cat o' nine tails. This was in no way meant to offend either vegans or flagellants.

I would also like to apologise to all those who were offended a few weeks back when I suggested to Mr C. Simpson he had two alternatives in tackling his new girlfriend's onion allergy: rsvp.com.au or changing the way he cooks. Mr Simpson, however, appreciated the jape and has taken on board our suggestion of sauteing sweet potato instead of onion in pumpkin soup for the sweetness. We also passed on the advice from many of you to use asafoetida, a spice that has a taste similar to onion and is found in Indian food stores. So thanks to all of you.

Leave a question for Richard Cornish in the comments below or email him at: brainfood@richardcornish.com.au