The magic of aromatic herbs

With the term aromatic herbs we  are referring to all those fresh or dried plants, rich in essences, cultivated or available in the wild, for culinary and medicinal use.

Aromatic herbs remind us of Mediterranean scrub, the sun and the outdoors: they are the aromas we often use in the kitchen, from balsamic rosemary to fresh mint to chamomile and linden herbal teas. Some are easy to grow at home, on the terrace or on the windowsill, to always have them fresh at hand.

There is even evidence that Neanderthal man, 60,000 years ago, knew them: pollen from aromatic plants such as yarrow and thyme, and which shows they were widely used, has been found in burials.

A large number of recipes and prescriptions of the use of aromatic herbs such as hemp, juniper, fennel, flax seeds and thyme have been found on Egyptian papyrus samples. 

The Greeks appreciated the use of aromatic herbs in their kitchen, so much so that Sophocles called them "artumata" or "condiments of nutrition". They were also used in sacred ceremonies where those who could not get incense to make sacrifices to the gods burned rosemary branches. Hippocrates, the "father of medicine", also classified aromatic plants, identifying upwards of 400 species of herbs based on their medicinal properties.

In the Middle Ages, knowledge of aromatic herbs was preserved and transmitted through the work of convents and monks with the Hortus Conclusus or simple herb garden: sage, mustard, rosemary, parsley, mint, dill and fennel and many others were cultivated in convents all over Europe and were regularly used in the kitchen, where they represented an economic alternative to the more expensive exotic spices. For their importance and beneficial properties, in 812 AD, Charlemagne made the cultivation of 74 herbs called "healthy and indispensable" throughout the Holy Roman Empire, compulsory, with an edict.

Myths and stories

One of the most beautiful stories told about the birth of aromatic herbs is that of the bay (laurel) leaf. According to the myth, the laurel plant made its appearance on earth because of the unrequited love of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, for the beautiful Daphne; one day he saw the girl near Mount Parnassus and tried to attract her. When she saw him arrive, she became frightened and began to flee and when the god was about to reach her, Daphne called upon the help of Gaea, the goddess of the earth, who turned her into a laurel tree. This plant became sacred to Apollo and in Greek civilization, was used to crown the heads of poets, heroes and winners.

A legend from the Roman era narrates that the basil plant (from the Greek basilikon, royal plant) was the antidote to the poison and the gaze of the mythical Basilisk, a small snake, the deadliest creature ever to have lived on Earth.

Another famous legend tells of the use of blends of aromatic herbs as an antidote to epidemics. During the plague of 1630, four thieves from Toulouse, not taking into account the risk of contagion, entered the homes of the sick and dying to steal. Caught in the act, they were arrested and sentenced to death by hanging. A judge asked them how they managed not to get sick and promised them grace if they revealed the secret of their immunity. The thieves replied that twice a day they bathed their wrists and temples with a vinegar macerate of various herbs, including sage, rosemary, thyme and lavender. From that day on, this remedy took the name "vinegar of the four thieves".

Olfactory properties

Aromatic herbs are a delight for the sense of smell and are hence easily identified by many. Each aromatic herb is characterized by different chemical molecules that construct its smell: for example in peppermint we find menthol and mentone, which give that peculiar scent of cold, pungent, intense and green that is found in all parts of the plant. Rosemary is rich in camphor and bornyl acetate which gives it a penetrating, intense and woody smell. Basil shows discrete quantities of estragol and methyl eugenol, which produce sweet and aromatic notes. The smell of fennel, with its anethole and fenchone compounds, brings us sensations of sweetness and cleanliness. In perfumes, the essential oils of aromatic herbs are often used in combination with those of citrus fruit to obtain original, fresh and sparkling notes, or to recall saline notes to obtain perfumes belonging to the marine-ozonated family.

In the kitchen they have enriched our recipes for millennia, but they are also an important component of the aromatic bouquet of some wines. For example, sage can be perceived with different intensity in many white wines (Prosecco, wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, Muller Turgau, Vermentino, and others), and more rarely, in red wines (some wines made from Nebbiolo or Nero D'Avola grapes).

A little advice

Although briefly, we have seen how aromatic plants hide a world of stories in the complexity of the compounds that characterize them: the next time you use these ingredients to cook your dishes, remember to pay attention to the smells you sense and try to memorize the sensations that spring to mind, to be able to fully enjoy these wonders that nature offers us.

Click here to discover TasterPlace White Wine Aromas.

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