Herbal History: Basil

Sweet Basil

A couple of years ago, on one of my many visits home, I bought a cheapie pot of basil at the supermarket. That pot of basil still sits on the window sill in the kitchen at my parents’ house and my mother plucks leaves from it when she makes a Caprese salad or needs some fresh seasoning. It doesn’t look too pretty now – it’s rather tall and skinny with a stick that helps to keep it upright – but it continues to be a fragrant and delicious addition to family meals.

Basil has a long history and, I was surprised to find out, one that had rather gloomy connotations (at least initially). According to The Lore of Spices by J.O. Swahn, the herb was used to help embalm mummies in ancient Egypt while in ancient Greece it was used as a symbol of mourning and in ancient Rome it was seen as a symbol of hatred. In the Middle Ages, folks believed that you could create scorpions from basil!

Basil originated in the East – in India or possibly even further east. Regardless, it is now quite universal, being one of the few herbs that is hardy enough to grow in a diverse array of climates or accommodating enough to thrive in a pot indoors. Unusually, it was in this form – grown fresh – that basil appears to have made its journey from East to West. Most other herbs initially made their Western debuts in dried form.Sweet Basil

One summer when I was in grade school, I decided to make my own pesto and grew basil in my parents’ backyard. I grew what seemed to me a tremendous amount of the stuff but – word to the wise – what looks like a large amount of basil yields only a small amount of pesto. What I made tasted fresh and delicious but it didn’t last very long! If you decide to grow your own basil (and I highly recommend it as a plant that is easy to cultivate), harvest your leaves before any buds open. Once the plant flowers, the leaves are no longer quite as flavorful. That said, a side benefit to letting it flower is that bees love feasting on basil blooms and by providing bees with more sources to gather nectar, you help to combat Colony Collapse Disorder (CDC).

There are several different varieties of basil and ongoing debates exist about the best ones to use for pesto, pizza and other classic dishes. To my mind, part of the fun is experimenting and coming to your own conclusions about preferred varietals. Here at the shop we sometimes have Purple Basil and Thai Basil – at the moment we have the classic Italian Sweet Basil (pictured)!

Mary is a baker and cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.