“We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it.” - George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, 1860
Whenever I remember my grandmother’s kitchen, the smell of it is what comes to mind first. Not the smell we associate with food cooking and which would vary according to the dish prepared. Rather, what I loved was the general, ambient smell one could appreciate first thing in the morning, for example. It was a wonderful mixture of herbal aromas of the bunches that were hanging to dry from the rafters near the pantry, the smell of bread toasting and milk being warmed, the wafting floral perfumes from the garden outside as they entered from the open window. A heady mix, a homely, warm, comfortable smell, fresh and pungent at the same time. Sweet and aromatic, but with a tinge of bitterness and refreshing vigour.
In the last few years, herbs have been becoming increasingly popular. Their curative properties, well known for centuries, have been rediscovered and herbalists or natural medicine practitioners enjoying an ever-increasing clientele. But despite this recent herb-fascination, herbs have been used widely, often ignored by most people. Herbs have been flavouring our most basic foods. What would pizza be if it weren’t for the tang of oregano? Could pesto be made without basil? What about the flavour of pickles without dill? Basil, rosemary, French tarragon, oregano and parsley are amongst the most versatile and popular cooking herbs, but the list of herbs numbers in the hundreds, especially if we look at cuisines all over the world.
Herbs are aromatic plants whose leaves, stems and flowers are used as flavouring. Spices also come from aromatic plants, but are derived from the bark, roots, seeds, buds and berries. Many herbs were first cultivated in the warmer climates of Europe along the Mediterranean, which explains the more savoury aspect of Mediterranean cooking compared to some of the blander traditional dishes of Northern Europe, for example. Here are five herbs that are essential to have in a pantry or growing in your garden:
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is one of the most popular herbs worldwide and the world’s oldest breath freshener. Chewing a couple of sprigs of fresh parsley after one has eaten garlic is said to be helpful in freshening the breath. It is a crucial ingredient in the Middle Eastern dish of tabbouleh. The curly variety of parsley is often used as a garnish, while the flat-leafed parsley is almost exclusively reserved for cooking. The flavour of this herb complements raw salads or simmered soups well. Parsley blends well with both mild and strong-flavoured herbs, so it is often used in combination with many others. Parsley does well in sunny spots, but will tolerate partial shade. It will not tolerate long periods in dry soils.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a perennial bush with spiky, short leaves. Rosemary sprigs are quite aromatic and used for flavouring lamb and pork, sausages and pâtés. Rosemary sprigs can also be sprinkled over open coals before grilling so the meat will absorb the roasted herb flavour. Like basil, this herb is often used in Italian but also in Greek cooking. It is popular in oil infusions with vinegar or wine. Rosemary can be used well both fresh and dried. The plant prefers warm climates and well-drained soil. The bluish-mauve flowers of rosemary are an added bonus at the end of summer.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a small annual bush with bright green leaves and spikes of small white flowers. Basil is best paired with tomato dishes and is most popular in Italian cooking. It also forms the basis for pesto. Basil is best used fresh as its flavour diminishes and alters when dried. Basil makes a popular plant for herbal gardens and sunny windowsills. To keep the leaves sprouting, and to prevent the plant from going to seed early, pinch off the flower stems the minute they appear.
French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is one of the most versatile herbs. It is typically used dried, and is rich in flavour. It is a classic for sauces like Béarnaise, but also useful for adding flavour to fish and eggs. Tarragon and rosemary do not mix well together and should not be used in the same dish. Parsley and chives can on the other hand be successfully combined with tarragon. Like most herbs, tarragon plants love sunny positions and the flavour intensifies when exposed to direct heat.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) grows wild in Mediterranean countries and is used widely in the region’s cooking. Oregano has a savoury flavour that works well with tomatoes, salads (especially the fresh herb), soups (minestrone!) and pasta, as well as with fish and game. Most pizza sauces are flavoured with oregano. The herb is quite pungent, but it will quickly lose flavour if cooked too long and may actually turn bitter if overcooked. When the flower buds are visible and just about to open, oregano leaves are said to be at their most flavoursome. Again like most herbs, oregano loves open, sunny garden spots. Its leaves are well adapted to drying if left in a warm, but dry and shady spot. For drying, the herb should be allowed to set seed and then collected and dried.
Although I like most herbs very much, one herb the flavour of which I rather dislike is fresh coriander (cilantro). Its smell can be overpowering and slightly nauseating for me. On the other hand, ground coriander seed I rather like! Go figure… Are there any herbs that you particularly dislike?
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