Welcome back to The Herb Garden. In today’s column we explore basil.
It’s finally basil season, and we couldn’t be happier! Ripping fresh leaves of basil and sprinkling them over virtually every food is the norm as the weather gets warmer. And everyone in Italy is probably growing a basil plant in their home right now. The cultivation of basil is in fact very simple, and comes with great satisfaction. This is why the majority of cooking enthusiasts has a basil plant on the kitchen window sill.
Basil is one of Italy’s most cultivated aromatic plants. Native to Asia, it reached Europe centuries ago, and has been grown in both Europe and in Asia since. The spade-shaped, smooth leaves are rich green, with thin stems. At the peak of the season in late summer, it produces a small spike of purple flowers, followed by woody fruits whose capsules contain small black seeds. The name “basil” derives from the Greek Basilikon for ‘royal plant’ or ‘plant of god’. lt is a perennial plant, and although it can stand the cold, temperatures below 10° C will cause it to deteriorate rapidly.
The type of basil we are most familiar with is a hybrid plant whose botanical name is Ocymum basilicum “genovese”, a homage to the city of Genoa the birthplace of traditional pesto.
Basil has always been employed in traditional medicine to fight gastrointestinal disorders, such as sense of fullness and flatulence, and as a remedy to aid digestion and to stimulate appetite. The essential oils it contains are used in traditional medicine for the treatment of rheumatic pain, joint pain, superficial wounds, colds and even to treat depression. In Chinese medicine it is used to treat kidney and stomach cramps. In Indian medicine it is used to treat a variety of disorders, like anorexia, rheumatoid arthritis, ear pain, fever and malaria. Basil is also used in homeopathic medicine in the form of granules for the treatment of anxiety disorders, nausea and vomiting, motion sickness, intestinal spasms, bronchitis and cough. The leaves and flowers of the basil plant are also potent mosquito repellent!
In Asia, where basil is an essential ingredient in many regional cuisines, the native varieties boast different scents of licorice, lemon, or spices. In France and in Greece the “ball-shaped” plant is a variety of tiny leaf basil. But there are many more varieties spread around the globe: burgundy or violet leafed basil, others with pungent aromas, even varieties with high levels of limonene in the leaves, which render an intense lemon fragrance.
“Basilico” is greatly used in Italian cuisine. It pairs exceptionally well with Mediterranean foods like tomatoes, eggplant, sweet peppers, fresh cheeses like mozzarella, ricotta and other non aged dairy, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, seafood and white meats. Besides pesto, where it is the star ingredient, it is also an important ingredient in recipes such as caprese salad, pasta alla Norma, parmigiana di melanzane and straccetti.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.