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Basil-the King of Herbs?

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Copyright, 2008, Maria Liberati

The Basic Art of Italian Cooking

Editor: Joseph McVeigh





Basil: a kingly herb?


Basil is a widely used herb in the Italian cuisine, a little bit like parsley: you can put it almost in every dish of pasta, risotto, sauces, pizza, decoration of cold dishes… Apart from that, it is also grown in pots and kept on window-sills throughout the summer as a remedy against mosquitoes. Its fragrance and perfume keep them away (this is a quality this herb shares with citronella, a tropical grass with lemon-scented leaves, which is cultivated in Italy, too. We’re becoming a tropical country, with the weather changing so much and growing hotter and hotter…)

Its name derives from the Latin word basilicum, coming in its turn from the Greek adjective βασιλικός, meaning kingly, as the dictionary says (M. Cortelazzo, P. Zolli, Dizionario etimologico della lingua italiana, Zanichelli, Bologna 1979, s.v.). So, it has always been considered a very fine herb, suitable for kings and queens.

Basil is native of tropical Asia, probably India, where it is still considered a holy herb, and planted near temples. It was then spread into Europe and Italians, in the past, considered it a symbol of love. Women in search of fiancé used to put a basil pot on their window-sill to wait for true love.

It was very soon used in the kitchen: the Roman Apicio (25 BC- 37 AD ?), famous for his cooking ability, wrote in his De re coquinaria a recipe including basil to flavour peas.

References to basil can be found in poetry, prose and art from the Middle Ages to the present. In Italy, G. Boccaccio (1313-1375) wrote about basil: in his Decameron (4thy day, fifth novella), he told the sad story of two lovers, Lisabetta da Messina and Lorenzo. Her brothers, not approving of their affair, killed the young man. In a dream, Lisabetta saw where her lover had been buried, went there and with the help of a faithful servant cut the head from the body and, when at home, put it into a large pot and planted basil in it. Basil grew wonderfully as it was daily watered by Lisabetta’s tears.

The English romantic poets P. B. Shelley (1792-1822) and John Keats (1795-1821) both wrote about basil in their poems. Shelley mentioned it in his To Emilia Viviani:


Madonna, wherefore hast thou sent to me
Sweet-basil and mignonette?
Embleming love and health, which never yet
In the same wreath might be.

and Keats retold the story by Boccaccio in his poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.

Let’s end with the recipe for the famous pesto alla genovese. What you need for 6 people is: abundant basil fresh leaves (about two handfuls), grated Parmesan cheese (3 tblsps), 1 clove (of garlic), a glass of extra virgin olive oil, a pinch of salt, pine nuts (1 tblsp). Chop garlic and basil very finely (add a little bit of salt, so that the leaves will keep their brilliant green), put them into the mortar and keep crushing adding oil, Parmesan, pine nuts little by little (the Italian name pesto comes from the verb pestare = to crush something in a mortar) until you get a creamy, green sauce; add some salt to taste. Being people living in the 21st century and, as such, with no much time to spare, I suggest putting all the ingredients together in the mixer and mix until ready. If you want to make it lighter and more digestible, prepare it without garlic and pine nuts.

You can season pasta with it (remember to thin it with one/two tablespoons of the boiling water in which pasta is being cooked); if you use it for boiled meat or fish you should dilute it with a little bit of vinegar.

And, very quickly, to prepare a nice colourful dish: peel and cut four potatoes into small cubes, wash and cut 1 pound of green beans, put everything into a large pan, cover with water, and cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft. Drain and season with your newly home-made pesto!



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