Next up in our The Herb Garden series is Rosmarinus officinalis, commonly known as rosemary. This evergreen shrub – which sometimes resembles a giant bush – thrives when it is planted near the sea. So it’s easy to see why this aromatic herb stands tall throughout the Mediterranean. Drawing on the arid land and saline breeze of Southern Europe, “the dew of the sea” can reach up to 6 ½ feet tall.
Present also throughout many other parts of the world including England, Shakespeare fondly called this fragrant herb “cheerful rosemarie” and Sir Thomas More let it run amuck in his garden. Besides being used in the kitchen and garden, its wood has proven useful in the production of lutes and carpenter’s rules.
Many mystical and even sacred legends dance around this sweet-scented herb. The French believed rosemary flowers had the power to rekindle lost energy. They burned them as incense in order to ward off black magic.
There is also a holy legend, which tells of the Virgin Mary who threw her robe on a rosemary bush in Egypt, tinting the flowers from white to blue. Probably for these, and other reasons, rosemary was thought to serve as an antidote to evil and was used to decorate churches on festive occasions. Known also as ‘the herb of fond remembrance’, brides in Ancient Rome carried a bouquet including this herb as a sign of the groom’s virility.
Still today rosemary symbolizes friendship and remembrance. In fact Australians wear a sprig of it on their coats for ANZAC Day.
A sister of lavender, rosemary is often used for its essential oils, which can be found throughout the entire plant, including its seeds. It is traditionally known to calm digestive disturbances, relieve rheumatic pains, stimulate hair growth, relieve muscle pain and improve eyesight. However unfortunate, none of these uses have been studied scientifically in humans.
Rosemary is proven to have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, invigorate the memory, inhibit food-borne pathogens and perhaps even reduce stress. One study has shown that long-term daily intake can prevent blood clotting.
It can also be used in incenses, teas and hair rinses, where it is used to stimulate the scalp and relieve nervous headaches. Its aromas are also captured in a wide range of soaps and cosmetics. The purple-pink blossoms of a rosemary bush are sometimes candied and can be enjoyed with a cup of tea or used to decorate cakes and pies.
In Italy rosmarino is used in roasts and stews of all types: rabbit, veal, mackrel, lamb, chicken, octopus pork. Even the father of Italian gastronomy, Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911), used it in his arrosto morto (dead roast) and baccalà in gratella.
Using the Tuscan term “ramerino”, Artusi also warns of its aggressive and long-lasting taste. Referring to both rosemary and garlic in his recipe for roasted veal he writes, “if, you enjoy these aromas, [but] you don’t love that they are difficult to digest, don’t be like those who stick a chicken or any other piece of meat all over with garlic and rosemary. Instead while cooking limit yourself to using one clove of garlic and two sprigs of rosemary in the baking dish”.
According to Pellegrino in “The Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”, moderation is key when it comes to rosemary. Artusi is of course right. Be sure to use the right amount of this pungent herb otherwise you risk your roasted rabbit tasting as if it was cooked in a Christmas tree.
If we step back farther in history to the Renaissance, we see Vatican chef and recipe writer Bartolomeo Scappi prepared turbot, by marinating it in salt, grape must and vinegar and then grilling it on a bed of oil-soaked rosemary branches. While Scappi is known to have prepared wild dishes like ravioli stuffed with cow udder, this simple and modern-sounding fish dish could be found on any Italian menu today.
Finely chopped rosemary gives fragrance to modern dishes such as castagnaccio, an unleavened chestnut flour cake found in central and northern Italy, and sometimes Liguria’s farinata, a chickpea flour pancake. Rosemary also lends is rich flavor to pandiramerino, a sweet bread native to Tuscany baked with rosemary and raisins.
For read more on herbs used in Italian cookery, take a walk in The Herb Garden.
Elizabeth Simari teaches Italian culinary history and wine seminars at American universities across Rome. Also a sommelier, journalist and translator, she can often be found in the kitchen with a pile of Italian cookbooks and magazines, replicating traditional recipes or discovering little-known indigenous grapes at an enoteca in the Eternal City.