Friday, 14 June 2013


Ever since ancient times people have known which herbs were suitable for eating and which had healing powers. The Greek doctor Hippocrates wrote descriptions of the botanical and medicinal properties of herbs, and later the Roman scholar Pliny knew a great deal about the virtues of the herb garden. In the Middle Age, cultivation of herbs became limited to the monastery herb gardens, but in the Renaissance, with it's sudden enthusiasm for antiquity, the full spectrum of herbs, and with that came their culinary and physical importance, was rediscovered. In the 15th century, when Pisa and Padua took the lead in planting large, and very ornate, herb gardens. News of these herb gardens spread to Florence, where Cosimo de' Medici, who as always never wanted to be left behind, immediately gave instructions for the creation of the Giardini dei Semplice. Lucca and Siena soon followed. The planting of herbs soon became a cult phenomenon, and herbs were once again heralded for their medicinal and culinary properties. 

Parsley was considered a tonic, it alleviated kidney complaints, and as Pliny claims, could even cure diseased fish if scattered on the surface of a fishpond. Basil was said to alleviate stomach ache and nausea, while peppermint was considered to be a stimulant. Sage was said to have antiseptic properties, thyme was a remedy for hangovers and rosemary was a tonic for nerves. Tarragon was said to help with snakebites, borage relieved muscle pain and fennel was said to sooth children. Everyone wished to to profit from the magical power of herbs.

Today, no excessive claims are made about the healing powers of herbs, but there culinary benefits are something we could hardly imagine being without. Tuscany in particular is a paradise for herb gardens, and many herb species grow wild throughout Italy, but even in the city people grow, at the very least, basil, rosemary and sage in whatever space they may have available, whether that be small window boxes or earthenware pots on balconies, so their aromatic leaves ae constantly available for cooking. 

Below are the herbs and spices which play an important part in Italian cuisine. 

Parsley (Prezzemolo)

In Italy, someone who never misses a party or social occasion is known as come il prezzemolo, like parsley, since parsley is said to be found everywhere. Parsley goes well with fish, salads, vegetables and mushrooms and also is used to add fresh, clean flavour to pasta dishes by being added right at the end of cooking. Flat- leaf parsley tends to be far more
popular than curly.

Mint (Mente)

The most popular variety of mint in Italian cooking is the small-leafed variety peppermint. Mint leaves are added to mushrooms and braised meat dishes and it's aromatic flavour is
used in salads and vegetable dishes to heighten their flavours.


Basil (Basilico)

Basil is probably the most indispensable of all Mediterranean herbs. The characteristic flavour and aroma is a typical element of Italian cooking. Basil goes well with tomato sauce, mozzarella, fish and pasta, as well as being a key ingredient to the Italian classic pesto.

Rosemary (Rosmarino)

Rosemary is a member of the labiate plant family, many of which grow wild throughout Italy. The narrow leaves of this herb goes well with roast meats, especially lamb, and fish, but is also good with sweet dishes such as castagnaccio, the delicious chestnut tart from the Maremma region.

Tarragon (Dragoncello)

Tarragon works extremely well with chicken and fish dishes. It's leaves can also be dipped in batter and fried in oil till crispy.

Thyme (Timo)

Thyme is mainly used as a flavouring for meat dishes, as it's well suited to pork, lamb and game. It grows almost everywhere and is easily found growing wild throughout Italy. It is also used to flavour roasted vegetables and sauces.

Sage (Salvia) 

Sage is used to accompany many roast dishes including meat and fish. It is used to flavour marinades for both meat, game and fish. Sage can also be used to flavour butter for pasta or gnocchi sauces or battered and deep-fried till crispy.

Borage (Boragine)

The flowers of borage are used to enhance and flavour salads. Borage leaves can also be used in the same way as spinach leaves.

Fennel (Finnichio)

In southern Italy, fennel grows wild everywhere. The stems, leaves and seeds can be used for cooking, as well as the bulbous roots we are most used to cooking with. Fennel goes well with pork and fish.

Chervil (Cerfoglio)

Has a rather limited use in Italian cooking but when it is, it is mainly used in vegetable dishes, soups and egg dishes.

Oregano (Origano) 

Oregano is used extensively throughout Italian cooking, most notably on pizza.

Marjoram (Maggiorana)

Is mostly used in savoury Italian dishes such as salads and pizza, but also used in pasta stuffings and sauces.

Chives (Erbe Cipollina)

Chives, similarly to chervil, are used rather limitedly in Italian cuisine. They ae mainly used with egg dishes and to flavour soft cheeses.

Coriander (Coriandolo)

Coriander is mainl used to flavour sausage products, such as mortadella and salami, but is also used to flavour liqueurs.

Dill (Aneto)

Dill is mostly used to stuff and flavour fish dishes.

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