Know your basil
Is there any herb that says summer more than fresh basil? The classic combination of sliced tomato, fresh mozzarella di bufala, basil leaves and extra-virgin olive oil that make up the famous Caprese salad uses the basil as the perfect foil for the sweet and tart flavour of the tomatoes and the creaminess of buffalo mozzarella.
The other classic use for basil is in pesto. Let’s be clear about pesto. Pesto, or pesto Genovese (from Genoain Liguria), is made with basil and doesn’t need to be called “basil pesto”. To do so is a redundancy a bit like that other ridiculous name “rice risotto”. Pesto means “pounded”, so other herbs can be used to make a “pesto” but these do need a qualifying word for the herb used, e.g. “coriander pesto”.
The manufacturing of pesto using second-rate cheese, pine nuts and oil that is often for sale in mainstream food outlets is another example of the degradation of a beautiful dish by food processors.No Italian would buy these as they know what the real thing should taste like.
If you grow your own basil, you will know how strong the flavour and aroma of fresh basil is and how insipid much of the hydroponic variety for sale tends to be. Every so often I use home-grown basil to make pesto in summer, just to remind myself how gorgeous it is.
Basil, which is the Greek word for “king” (a kingly herb?) belongs to the Ocimum family of tropical plants and there are about 40 varieties of basil that range from the familiar sweet clove-scented basil that is found in Liguria in north-west Italy and Provence in the south of France to the anise/camphor-scented basil of Thailand.
Terroir also determines how strong and just what nuances of flavour and aroma of cloves, anise and camphor the basil has. There are also basils with purple leaves, not as highly flavoured as sweet basil, and there are basils with lemon, lime and cinnamon flavours.
At the moment we have some sweet basil growing in a large pot in full sun. It has large vigorous-looking leaves and this year it is the strongest-smelling and strongest-tasting basil we have ever seen. Sweet basil generally tastes best when the leaves are young and I don’t bother with dried basil as it often just tastes like “dried herbs” and its contribution to cooked dishes is usually negligible.
Basil is native to Africa but was domesticated in India where it was considered sacred and was known to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Ancient Roman naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder, thought basil to be an aphrodisiac.
In Italy it was a symbol of love. Isabella and the Pot of Basil is a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron and tells of the heroine Isabella who inters her murdered lover Lorenzo’s severed head in a large pot of basil so she could keep him close until she eventually pined away. How’s that for love? The Greeks, however, considered it a symbol of hate.
Buy basil that is preferably grown in summer in the earth and avoid anything wilted or blackened and don’t store it wet as blackening will occur. When using, rip the leaves when eating it raw rather than cutting it with a knife, or leave them whole as the leaves will turn black and the fragrance will diminish.
A big branch of clean basil can be put into a jar sprinkled with salt and covered with extra-virgin olive oil and stored in the fridge for a few days before bringing back to room temperature and used as basil-infused oil on salads, raw tomatoes and hot steamed vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini or green beans.
If I am flavouring a cooked dish with basil I don’t add it until late in cooking as the flavour is surprisingly delicate when confronted with other hot ingredients. Best of all are fresh basil leaves sprinkled just before serving on a hot dish, as the heat makes it even more fragrant.
Pizza margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella di bufala, parmesan and basil) is traditionally cooked so quickly that the aroma and flavour of the basil is preserved. As are fish fillets when baked in paper or foil cases with basil leaves, lemon slices, a few black olives and extra virgin olive oil.
A range of aromatic basil recipes can be found in our basil collection