Basil, the King of Herbs
This time of the year, and though mid-September, it is common to see flowerpots overflowing with basil. For years, though, Greeks did not cook with this most aromatic of herbs, because they considered it sacred. It is still thought to ward off evil, bad spirits (and mosquitoes), although nowadays there are many varieties of basil available in Greece, and many uses for them in the kitchen.
According to legend, it was under a patch of basil that St. Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine, discovered the True Cross, and it is with sprigs of basil that Holy Water is sprinkled during the Greek Orthodox Church service.
In ancient Greece and Rome, basil was associated with both love and death, considered a symbol of mourning but also, together with jasmine and the rose, as emblems of love. It was known as Ocymum to the ancient Greeks. Theophrastus studies it in his "Enquiry into Plants", and Athenaeus mentions it, but not as an ingredient in recipes. (It was used to make certain crowning wreaths.)
A Few Traditional Recipes
Basil seasons a chicken soup known throughout the Balkans called chorba (or tsorvas). In Greece, it sometimes takes the place of mint (they belong to the same family) in the tomato keftedes of Santorini, and there is an old Cretan recipe calling for a large, flat-leaf variety of basil, which is rolled into dolmades. In Crete, there has always been a wealth of folklore associated with basil. It was traditionally tended to by young girls, and, like elsewhere was the herb associated with love. Girls would toss it to their loved ones surreptitiously, and they, in turn, would wear the sprig tucked behind their ear. Traditionally, too, basil was grown with the help only of donkey manure, and an old saying in Crete <> denotes two things that are inseparable.
There are at least 14 different varieties of basil. There is lemon basil, and anise-scented basil, and cinnamon basil, as well as lettuce-leaf basil, with very large leaves and probably the variety used to make those now-lost Cretan dolmades. Some basil is purple, some dull or bright green, some almost grey in color. The variety most familiar in Greece is bush basil, or Octimum basilicum "minimum". The herb loses much of its fragrance when dry, so it is best to use the leaves fresh. Their flavor intensifies, during cooking.
More herbs & spices
Oregano (Ρίγανι, Rigani)
The etymology of the Greek term is often given as oros oρος "mountain" + the verb ganousthai γανοῦσθαι "delight in"! Greek Oregano grows even wildly on almost every other Greek mountain and comes in many varieties that are used to spice food, especially salads or tomato based dishes.
Mastic: The "tears of Chios"
Mastic is a resin obtained from the mastic tree! In Greece it is known as the "tears of Chios," being traditionally produced on that Greek island, and, like other natural resins is produced in "tears" or droplets. Originally liquid, it is sun-dried into drops of hard brittle translucent resin.
Saffron (Greek Κρόκος, Krokus)
On the north of Greece, in the beautiful area of Kozani grows the amazing flower called Saffron! The Greek Saffron is considered to be the best in the world and it has been used as medicine and as a wonderful food spice since ancient times!
Following Cinnamon's Scent
I don't know if it's been my travels of late in the Peloponnese, or my perusals through Indian cookbooks, in search of something different to cook for dinner, or something a cook friend said to me the other day, about how spices make the world seem smaller, but my kitchen sensibility has been tuned to cinnamon in the last few weeks.
All herbs & spices...