Home gardens in Italy?
August 3, 2019
I thought the essentials of an Italian herb garden were basil (basilico), parsley (prezzomolo), oregano (origano)and rosemary (rosmarino). I remember my friend's grandmother growing these in her garden in the 1950s in Flushing, New York. I loved to be in their house when the " sauce" was brewing. It was the tantalizing smell of fresh seasonings, tomatoes, onions and garlic that first turned me on to herbs and Italian food. When I was 9 years old my girlfriend's mother gave me my first Italian sauce recipe and cooking lessons. I have used that recipe with variations ever since.
After years of cooking Italian dishes I knew there were other herbs of importance to this amazing cuisine, but until my trip to Italy in 2006, I did not realize just how many! I was amazed by their variety and center-stage performance. Herbs are the heart of the healthful and simple daily diet of most Italians. The combination of aroma and flavor that they provide add depth and freshness from the antipasti course (appetizer) to the dolci course (dessert).
I was impressed by the numerous "home herb gardens" in Italy. Why not use store-bought herbs in a country where they are readily available and shopping is a daily occurrence? The cultural passion for freshness is the reason! Many Italians will not settle for good herbs from a market when they can grow the very best at home.
The typical Italian herb garden stars "Genoese basil" with its medium-sized, light green and pungently flavored leaves. It is an essential ingredient in pesto and used in most dishes calling for tomatoes, to which it has a great affinity.
Flat leaf or Italian parsley did not come by its name accidently. It is grown in Italy for its robustly flavored, feathery green leaves. It is a nutritious herb used to flavor innumerable dishes but not generally offered as a garnish in Italy. Parsley is for eating! Here is a lesson to be learned by the chefs and consumers in this country. Review my column on parsley for the health benefits this herb provides.
Rosemary grows wild in much of Italy but at least one plant is tamed for each home garden. Its pungent, pine scented needles are used sparingly in cooked foods and rarely in the "raw." It is often combined with meats, fish, strong vegetables, potatoes and breads.
Oregano in the north and its "kissing cousin" marjoram in the south of Italy hold a prominent place in this garden. They are similar in appearance with small aromatic oval-shaped green leaves. They pair well with tomatoes, vegetables and soups. Marjoram is the milder of the two and is also used to flavor meat and poultry. I must admit that the prominence of marjoram in Italy was one of my big surprises.
The importance of culinary sage in the herb garden as well as the cuisine was also unexpected, but delightful. At home I often used the furry-silvery green leaves with fatty meats and strong vegetables. My amazement was how delicious cooked sauces were when lightly flavored with it. I still savor the flavor of a "white wine sage sauce" smothering my ravioli in the little town of Fiasole.
A bay tree is often found in the garden setting and their leaves are much more than a flavoring for soups and sauces. I was a bit shocked when I was told by my Italian cooking class instructor to chop them up with all the other herbs for a bread crumb blend to coat lamb chops. Most recipes warn that the leaf should be removed before serving! The difference was that the teacher was using fresh, lithe leaves not the stiff, dried ones that we are accustomed to in this country. Chef Fausto's garden supplied his home, restaurant and culinary classes.
Suzanna and Mario, the owners of the Inn where we stayed in Genoa Italy, had an amazing home garden (see photo above). Also pictured is Mario with a homemade Margherita pizza with tomatoes and basil fresh from their garden. They made delicious bread and pastas, too!
If you are a fan of the bold scent and flavor of Italian cuisine you should plan for a section of your garden to be devoted to these particular herbs. Their harmonious blend with fresh healthful food will nourish your body as well as your spirit. I am sharing a simple recipe that I hope you will savor as much as I do. Contact me at http://www.herbbasket.net with your Italian herb recipes.