I remember, as a child, my Italian mother in the kitchen, pots and pans bubbling on the stove, delicious aromas wafting through the house.
Sometimes she would send me out to the garden to pick fresh vegetables, but mostly, fresh herbs. It is then that I started to learn the names of different herbs and their use in the kitchen and I now use many of them in my own cooking.
Italian cuisine is one of the best loved in the world with some of the tastiest and most renowned herbs coming from Italy. Many culinary herbs grow well in pots (do not worry if you do not have a garden!), But they do need plenty of sun and well-drained soil. Make sure to find out the habits of each herb you plant, as some, like mint, can become quite unruly and spread wildly, taking over your garden.
Herbs used in Italian Cuisine:
BASIL (Ocimum basilicum): useful in many tasty Italian recipes, adds flavor to your dishes, and is usually added raw, just before serving, to maintain its aroma. Planted next to peppers and tomatoes, it will actually improve their flavor. Basil comes in many varieties, with a wide range of leaf size and distinct fragrances and flavors. It prefers a sunny location (it needs at least five hours of sun a day) and well-drained soli. Bonus: basil repels flies and mosquitoes.
PARSLEY (Petroselinum crispum & P. crispum var. Neopolitanum): this herb can be a little tricky to grow but is a welcome addition to Italian (and other countries’) cuisine. This biennial herb is an excellent source of iron and vitamin C and self-seeds well. The most common types are curly-leaved parsley, usually used for garnishes, and flat-leafed parsley, also known as Italian parsley. Historically, fresh parsley was used as a breath freshener-served on a small plate after flavorful meals.
OREGANO (Origanum vulgare): both decorative and flavorful, when fully mature it has attractive purple flowers. The oregano plant grows wild from Europe to Central Asia, but one of the most flavorful varieties is Greek oregano. If it does not have a fragrance when a leaf is crushed, it will not be flavorful in your dishes either. Oregano should not be harvested until it has flowered: that’s when it’s at its best. The ancient Greeks would crown newlyweds with oregano, as it was considered a symbol of happiness.
FENNEL (Foeniculum vulgare): a perennial, it needs to be divided and replanted every few years to maintain its flavor. It prefers full sun and a well-drained soil. It is easily grown from seed, but should be planed where it’s meant to grow, because it has a taproot. The leaves are eaten raw and the stems are usually cooked. It is widely used to flavor sausages and fish dishes. The seeds are used in many cuisines as an after dinner digestive. In Italy fennel water, made with the seeds, is given to babies to soothe their colicky pains.
ROSEMARY (Rosmarinus officinalis): considered by the ancients to be a symbol of immortality, it was used in religious ceremonies. Like basil, it is beneficial to your garden. It can grow into a large shrub and has tiny blue blossoms. Although tough, rosemary is sensitive to frost and does not appreciate cold winds – a sheltered sunny spot in your garden or in a container is best. Depending on which part of the country you live, you may need to bring your rosemary plant inside for the winter. Rosemary helps with the digestion of rich and starchy foods. It gives a wonderful flavor to meats, especially lamb and beef, vegetables, roasted potatoes and bread.
GARLIC (Allium sativum): probably the most used herb in Italian cuisine, it is also a powerful disinfectant and antiseptic, as well as an insect repellant. Garlic is a tough plant and will thrive in just about any garden with minimal attention. It likes full sun and a well-drained sandy soil. Garlic can be stored after harvest in a cool and dry environment or by freezing or pickling (keep in the fridge). It can be used both cooked and raw. To easily digest garlic, remove the green germ, the sprout in the center of the clove.
SAGE (Salvia officinalis): its name derives from the Latin word “salus”, meaning health: it was so highly regarded by the ancients, that it was considered to be a universal cure all. Sage leaves help with digestion, are antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. Sage is used in a variety of Italian dishes from meats to salads, cheese and egg dishes, even dumplings and scones. If harvesting for winter use, it’s best to pick the leaves before the plants flowers, otherwise, during the growing season, just pinch off leaves as needed. Sage grown near cabbages helps improve the flavor and repel the cage butterfly.
These are just a few of the most popular herbs used in Italian cuisine. Italian herbs are more than just flavorful, they are also beautiful additions to your garden’s landscape. Growing these wonderful herbs among your other plants will add their charming aromas to your garden, making you feel as though you’re strolling on an Italian hillside!