On every pizza, on every pasta, in every single image representing Italian gastronomic culture around the world, you are bound to spot a basil leaf. This is because basil symbolises Mediterranean cuisine, which is made up of dishes created from simple ingredients that, traditionally, are often picked from the back garden. And if you do not have a tomato garden, you surely could have a basil plant on your windowsill.
Among the most popular aromatic herbs – whether flowering, leafy or bulbous – in Italy, however, there is not just basil, although it is perhaps the most widely known.
Together we set off on a journey through the fragrances of the Italian regions, to discover how many sweet-smelling gifts, made of herbs and spices, our territories offer us.
Lombardy presents us with delicious fragrances thanks to the rosemary of Montevecchia, which grows along the spectacular terracing in the Lecco Brianza area. Rosemary is an ingredient with almost universal value, widespread throughout Italy in many variations and used in an infinite number of recipes, from North to South, from Lombardy to Apulia. To savour its deliciousness, we invite you to use it in a classic risotto or experiment with a tasty white meat, such as a rabbit loin stuffed with lard, walnuts and rosemary, rosemary gin sauce.
Wandering among the dishes of neighbouring Piedmont, we find wild herbs with odd names like barbabuc, which means ‘beak beard’ (the dialect name for a billy goat) a herbaceous plant belonging to the Asteraceae family that grows wild in forage meadows. It is often used as a side dish, just sautéed.
But if we are looking for a region that is totally represented by a dish and the plant used to make it, we can only think of Liguria and its perennial scent of basil, the main ingredient of pesto, used to season trofie, classic pasta or the traditional testaroli… Ligurians never shy away from adding it to everything, hence it is easy to find focaccia with a green touch, or the classic minestrone with the addition of the famous sauce.
Going down to neighbouring Tuscany, dishes are filled with the classic aromas and flavours of Italian cuisine, from sage to rosemary, but we like interesting curiosities and hidden treasures, like tarragon, a herb with incredible healing properties. According to legend, it was imported by a dragon (a soldier on horseback during the Napoleonic period), in love with a girl from Siena. One morning, shaking his boots on the window, some seeds dropped, and a tarragon seedling sprouted, a symbol of that fleeting love.
And in Siena, the famous tarragon sauce is used to flavour many dishes, from meat, to eggs, to vegetables: it certainly goes well with everything (besides the fact that its savouriness helps using less salt!).
If instead we would like to look over to the other coast, to the marvellous promontory of Conero (in the Marche region) and bring all the fragrance of the sea to our plate, we can do so thanks to paccasassi (or sea fennel), an aromatic herb that grows among the cracks in the cliffs near the sea, impervious and brave. The wild variety cannot be picked, but it is easy to find the cultivated one, used in appetisers, paired with canapés, and cured meats, and often as a filling in crescia (the local flatbread), combined with mortadella or local sausage.
Following the aromatic herbs, we reach the Tyrrhenian coast, in Latium, where Roman mint and spearmint enrich several traditional recipes. Many mistake the two varieties, but spearmint is also known as nepitella, and its leaves are smaller than those of mint. Both varieties are excellent for cooking: spearmint provides a balsamic touch when added to classic fried mushrooms, instead of parsley, while mint is excellent when used to make the typical Roman artichokes, and also all the other artichoke dishes, instead of other herbs like basil or marjoram (try, for example, the sautéed artichokes, of our chef Maurizio Bosotti, with a touch of mint to taste). For a deliciously Mediterranean, fresh and eye-catching recipe, the swordfish rolls with mint courgettes are a must-try main course dish.
Moving as far as opulent Sicily, apart from the scent of orange blossoms in spring, one is also likely to smell the scent of Sicilian oregano (called ‘riano’ in Sicilian dialect), an indigenous species included in the national list of Traditional Agrifood Products. Found in many preparations, but the dish that best expresses this herb is definitely Rianata Trapanese, a red focaccia that may seem overcooked at first glance but is only covered in tomatoes and intense dried oregano. Paired with anchovies or pecorino cheese, this is a truly fabulous recipe.
This gastronomic tour of Italy cannot but end with the classic myrtle, the representative plant of Sardinia: a resistant, beautiful shrub anchored to its land. Clearly its greatest expression is in its celebrated liqueur but, the berries are often found when dining on the beautiful island as they are used as condiments for meats and roasts, the aromas of which are intensified by the sweet scent of myrtle.
Mediterranean cuisine, and especially Italian cuisine, is all about simple, unprocessed ingredients, mixed and flavoured with spices or fresh herbs: hence a simple pasta dish with tomato sauce becomes special by adding some basil, or a roast becomes flavourful with some rosemary sprigs, completing the taste and aroma.
Luckily, herbs and spices cross borders and regions, becoming part of the tales of villages distant from where they were born: all this adds up to the marvellous tableau of Italian cuisine.