Gardening Magazine

Mediterranean Herbs

By Mwillis
Continuing my current enthusiasm for Mediterranean food, I thought it would be appropriate to showcase some of my Mediterranean herbs. To be honest, most of the well-known herbs originate from the Mediterranean (from where they were allegedly taken to other places by the Romans), but many of them have been adopted by other countries. Take Rosemary for instance. Definitely one of Mediterranean origin, a sun-lover that will survive in some very parched terrain, but it has been enthusiastically adopted by us British and is now inextricably linked to our beloved roast Lamb.
Mediterranean herbs
I love the strong flavor of Rosemary - in the right place. There's no denying it goes well with lamb, but I don't think it's particularly versatile, and I definitely wouldn't pair it with beef. I'm also not a fan of the texture of Rosemary. The leaves are quite tough, and particularly when cooked whole Rosemary leaves can be very dry, sharp (in the prickly sense) and unpleasant. I prefer to either chop the leaves very finely, or to use the Rosemary only in a marinade, leaving it as whole sprigs that can be removed if desired.
Just a little anecdote here. During our recent holiday to Portugal, we visited the Mercado Municipal in Tavira and noticed that some stalls were offering for sale bundles of Rosemary twigs, with the leaves stripped off. I presume that even the bare twigs can be used to impart flavor. Maybe they are burned on a barbecue to give off scented smoke, just like some people use Hickory. Does anyone know?
This week, Jane and I have been cooking with mostly soft herbs (as opposed to woody ones). Top of the list here is Parsley - the flat-leaf one, not the curly one:

Mediterranean herbs

Flat-leaf Parsley


I have a few clumps of this dotted around wherever there is space.

Mediterranean herbs

Flat-leaf Parsley


My experience has shown me that Parsley likes moist soil, but loves the sunshine. I can't imagine it growing enthusiastically on a dry stony hillside in Greece. This makes me wonder where exactly do they grow Parsley in the Mediterranean, considering that it is used in practically every recipe? Maybe they have artificially irrigated gardens of it..? For my part, I do my best to water my Parsley every day to keep it in good condition, because I know that it is likely to bolt if it gets stressed. By the way, did you know that Parsley is often affected by Carrot Root Fly? When you look at it, you soon realize that Parsley is closely related to the Carrot, so it's no wonder that it's susceptible to the same pests.
As I said, Parsley (and usually the flat-leaf type) is ubiquitous in Mediterranean cuisines, and is most often used uncooked, frequently added at the last minute as a garnish. This is because it tends to lose its flavor rapidly when cooked. One of our favorite ways to use it is in Tabbouleh, made with couscous or bulgur wheat. We usually mix it half-and-half with Mint if there is some available. The combination of these two gives the dish a really fresh zesty kick. We tend to use a lot more of the carb element than people in the Mediterranean would do - they would use about 90% herbs, with just a tiny bit of bulgur or whatever.

Mediterranean herbs

Tabbouleh


Another herb I associate very firmly with Mediterranean food is Oregano, specifically the type we call Greek Oregano. It has a strong, pungent flavour, but one that I really love. Fresh Oregano is nice, but dried Oregano is even nicer! The drying process concentrates the flavour, and makes it somehow "warmer".

Mediterranean herbs

Flower-buds of Greek Oregano


After one or two false starts (buying "ordinary" grassy-tasting Oregano / Marjoram falsely masquerading as the real thing), I finally managed last year to get some seeds for the authentic Greek Oregano, and I think I have established it successfully. I have some in a border and one plant in a pot as an "insurance policy", in the sense that I can keep it under cover during the Winter. Oregano is officially a perennial, but I know that it can suffer a lot in cold wet conditions.

Mediterranean herbs

Greek Oregano growing in the border


Mediterranean herbs

Potted Greek Oregano


One way to identify proper Greek Oregano is to check the flowers. The Greek one has white flowers, whereas the others have pink or mauve ones.

Mediterranean herbs

Greek oregano flowers


I love olive oil that has been infused with Oregano, which is great for making a Greek-style salad-dressing. We sometimes buy the Sainsbury's "Taste the Difference" olives in olive oil with Oregano, and when the olives are finished we keep the oil for use as ready-made salad-dressing, for use on something like this gorgeous salad consisting of tomato, cucumber, onion, cheese and olives:

Mediterranean herbs

Greek salad


Dried Oregano is a herb that will stand up to being cooked. It is often used in Italian tomato sauces and such-like, and sometimes sprinkled on top of a pizza. Try baking a whole slab of Feta cheese perched on top of a few sprigs of fresh Oregano, smothered in dried Oregano and drizzled with some of that Oregano-infused oil... It's lovely - as long as you like Oregano!
In view of its origin, it comes as no surprise that Greek Oregano enjoys sunshine. In the garden it needs to go in a place that will get as much direct sunlight as possible, and be in well-drained soil. As a perennial, it is important to recognize that it will die down completely in the Winter, such that nothing much is visible above ground , so just be careful not to dig it up by mistake.
I have realised that this post is already very long, yet I have hardly scratched the surface of the subject, so I'm going to end here with just a nod to perhaps the most well-known of all Mediterranean herbs - Basil. It's one of those that was practically unknown in Britain 50 years ago, but now it is everywhere.
Mediterranean herbs

As you can see, I grow my Basil on an indoor windowsill, because I have found that it doesn't do very well outside, particularly if we get a wet gloomy Summer.

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