What is Basil, sweet? How to Use Basil, sweet

FR: Basilic commun GER: Basilienkraut, Basilikum IT: Basilico

SP: Alabega, Albahaca BOT: Ocimum basilicum FAM: Labiatae

Since basil is one of the great culinary herbs, it is rather to the shame of English cooks that in the

Ministry of Agriculture bulletin on herbs it should be omitted as being ‘now of little or no importance’.

Basil probably came from India to Europe overland via the Middle East. It arrived in Britain in the sixteenth century and reached America in the seventeenth, so its use in the West is comparatively recent. In India, basil is little used in cooking, but a type of basil (Ocimum sanctum) is the holy tulsi which Hindus regard with such reverence that when the British wanted to find something on which Hindus (who have nothing equivalent to the Bible) could take an oath in court, tulsi was one of the items chosen as of sufficient holiness.

What is Basil, sweet? How to Use Basil, sweet Photo Gallery




In the West, basil is the symbol of fertility. Boccaccio tells the story of Lisabetta, whose tears watered the pot of basil in which she had buried the head of her lover. (Keats’ Isabella or The Pot of Basil is another version.) In a quite different vein the Flemish doctor, Van Helmont (1577-1644), who was one of the fathers of experimental science, believed that if crushed basil were left in the cavity between two bricks, it would turn into scorpions! The old wives’ tale must have originated not in Belgium but in southern Europe where one can usually find small scorpions under stones if one looks for them

Basil is an annual and, being a warm country plant, it will stand no frost. It is exceedingly variable but typically grows to about two feet high and has light green, silky and tender leaves sometimes about the size of a beech leaf but often much smaller. Also, the plant breeders have been at work, and there are now even lettuce-leaved varieties. The flowers are small and creamy white.

Basil may be sown in a light rich soil or compost, either under glass or in the garden when all danger of frost is past. It can be grown in a sunny sheltered place if protected from cold winds. Plants should be twelve inches apart, and it may be trained to a bushy form by pinching out shoots. But such old basil which has been grown in what are, for it, rather adverse climatic conditions is usually rank and tough. Worse, it loses its most delicate sweet scent and acquires strong overtones. It is much better to sow in succession – perhaps in boxes – and to use only young plants. In Genoa, Italy, where basil is grown extensively, it is forced in greenhouses under tropical heat and humidity, and always pulled when only about six inches high. It is then sold in the markets in bunches with the roots still intact and bound up in green leaves or grass and paper. This is because it rather quickly wilts.

Basil is an exception to the general rule for labiate herbs: it is best grown quickly in soft conditions and used young. Other members of this family develop a better flavour when they have to fight for a living. If limited to one home-grown, fresh herb, I should select basil, sow it frequently in a box protected by glass, and never grow large plants. The flavour of fresh basil is slightly like that of cloves, but this description does not do it justice. Its smell is so sweet and strong that it perfumes the whole garden, when picked. The flavour of dried basil on the other hand is not comparable: it tastes a little like curry and cannot ever replace the fresh herb. Basil can be kept for a short time in a polythene bag in the refrigerator and is also suitable for quick freezing in polythene bags after it has been blanched momentarily in boiling water. However, I prefer the Italian method of preserving it in oil. If the leaves are dirty, wash and dry; otherwise pack the leaves straight into a clean dry jar, sprinkling a good pinch of salt over each layer. When the jar is full, fill up with olive oil to cover. Close well. This will keep indefinitely in a cool store cupboard or refrigerator and preserves most of the fresh flavour, even though with time it will blacken. It is splendid for making pesto (see below).

In English and American markets basil as a fresh herb is nowadays very common, it is traditional in turtle soup and was certainly used in the past. All blogs quote the famous seventeenth century Fetter Lane sausages. However, it cannot be regarded as a typical ingredient of northern European cooking. In northern France one finds that basil is seldom used, perhaps because the use of fresh herbs in regional cooking depends rather on what can be easily grown in the climate. Because basil likes warmth, if one wishes to find real ‘basil country’ one must go south to the Mediterranean -particularly to the Ligurian coast of Italy.

Perhaps the most delicious use of basil is in pesto Genovese, which in various forms is found all along the Riviera coast from Genoa to Provence (where it is calledpistou). The basis is always basil, with garlic, salt, olive oil, Parmesan and sardo (hard Sardinian sheep’s milk) cheese, pine nuts and often skinned walnuts – all pounded together to a thick sauce. Needless to say some bowdlerized recipes in English blogs suggest leaving out the garlic. In southern France pistou is used in soup; in Italy pesto with plenty of olive oil is used as a sauce for spaghetti or trenette. Basil, like garlic, leads to passionate addiction, and the two combined provide what in my opinion is the sauce for spaghetti quite beyond all others. Unfortunately pesto is local, but it is easy to make, and one can buy it canned or preserved in glass jars. These are scarcely passable substitutes for fresh pesto, but perhaps are better than no pesto at all.

Basil has a great affinity with tomatoes. Where I lived on the Italian Riviera the common snack consisted of a crusty roll split and filled with sliced tomato, salt, olive oil, and a few leaves of fresh basil – no butter of course – just squashed to make the oil and juice impregnate the bread. Tourists should avoid hotel sandwiches and try this (with a bottle of red wine) having started the day with a visit to the market. Basil is delicious in a tomato salad dressed with salt and olive oil. Incidentally, chopping basil rather spoils the flavour, and it is better to shred the leaves with the fingers.

Basil goes in tomato sauces – any dish of tomatoes. It also goes with sweet peppers and aubergines; with fish of any kind but especially with red mullet; in meat dishes with wine and garlic, and with chicken; pounded with butter, as a herb butter with steak; with eggs (e.g. oeufs mollets a la creme aux fines herbes); and even with shellfish. I often include a few leaves in my pate. Indeed, an addict will use basil in almost anything.

Outside Europe, basil and its near relatives are occasionally used in India (babuitulsi), and in Malaysian cookery (selaseh), and the seeds of one type – gelatinous after soaking – are also used in drinks.

Finally there is basil vinegar – made by macerating the leaves in wine vinegar. This is a good herb vinegar for use in winter. bush or dwarf basil grows not much over six inches high and is mainly a decorative plant. There are horticultural varieties with different coloured leaves and it can be grown into a bush by ‘pinching out’. The flavour is inferior to that of sweet basil. lemon basil and Italian or curly basil are both ornamental though quite wholesome. The so-called wild basil is not a basil but a relative of calamint which itself is sometimes called basil thyme. It is also fragrant and wholesome to use in cooking if liked, but is nothing like sweet basil in flavour.

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