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Aromatic Herbs


The importance of aromatic herbs in Tuscan cooking is fundamental. Basil, parsley, mint, sage, rosemary, calamint, thyme, bay leaf, fennel seeds, marjoram, myrtle, juniper, tarragon, and cumin are regularly used to give flavour to the most simple dishes. The aromatic herbs actually have the power to exalt rich dishes, such as game, roasts etc., and to enrich the more humble cooking of fritters, pies, vegetable soups, herb quichés etc. Below are cited some of the most widely used herbs in Tuscany and full of fascination. Basil must not be left out from a dish of tomatoes that - let us remember - is originally from Perù as reveals it first latin name: malum peruvianum, which means Peruvian apple. The official date of its entry into Italy is in 1596 and arrived in Naples (but it is not said if it arrived before). Certainly, in brief, it became an absolute protagonist of some Italian kitchens, and certainly that of Tuscany. But it is impossible to think of a pomarola without basil that remains as a flavouring in first courses – it is also a fundamental ingredient for pesto at this point also entered Tuscany, a widely used food, the aroma of this plant also goes well with the vegetables in most soups. What to say about parsley but to say «you are always in the middle, like parsley»? An irremissable aroma for many dishes: it is sprinkled and used uncooked and also has the ability to decorate many dishes. Mint is used in sauces and vegetable soups, it must be remembered that the origin of this plant has been handed down from Greek mythology. There was a very beautiful nymph by the name of Minte; who was loved by the god of the underworld, Ade. The cheated wife, Persephone, for revenge transformed her into a plant. So narrated the poet Ovid in the Metamorphosis («And you were permitted, oh Persephone, to transform the body of a woman into a plant of perfumed mint»). We must not forget the therapeutic virtues of the tisane of this plant that benefits those who are suffering from a bad stomach. Sage and rosemary are typical mediterranean plants, their use in cooking is daily because they can be added to meats, potatoes, fries, to the cooking of chick-peas and beans. Also the tisane of rosemary treats the skin and that of sage calms the cough and helps to treat inflammations. Calamint with its very decisive flavour adds dignity to mushrooms when they are cooked, even those very modest or less valued specimens, those that are used in sauces or as a side dish and to enrich meats, such as in stews.
Thyme which is commonly called peporino or pepolino is fundamental for stuffings which gives it a characteristic flavour. The bay leaf is a mythological sacred plant of Apollo, the branch of the laurel used to encircled the head, used still today for various crowns (enough to think of the laurel crown for the graduate..), it is used to aromatize game and chestnuts, but its particular perfume is much appreciated also in the meat crostini, in sauces and various vegetable soups. Fennel seeds - indispensable for the pig’s livers with the rete - is used in many dishes even with an approach that sometimes may seem to be strange, from bread to cakes. Marjoram allows for an excellent omelette that is enriched with a taste that make it a delicacy. Myrtle, known also as “mortella”; was sacred to Venus and so to love and was used to decorate and to give best wishes to a nuptial feast and in the house of the newly-weds. It was however, also sacred to Apollo and a symbol of glory in as much as the victorious were crowned with this plant. It was also, and still is, used in the decoration of funerals as a remembrance of the dearly departed. On the myrtle plant in autumn grow the berries, these are used in cooking recalling antique and natural flavours. In an antique Tuscan recipe, myrtle berries are also used in preparing crostini. Two ounces should be chopped with a clove of garlic; 50 grammes of butter and two spoonfuls of a good olive oil to be added, salt and pepper and mix well together. A cream is formed and this can be spread on a toasted piece of wholemeal bread. These crostini are accompanied with a glass of good red wine and offered as an aperitif. Juniper is found on the hills and in the mountains; the berries are used to flavour the hunted birds and the stuffing for the capon, chicken and turkey. Tarragon: Of this plant the Sienese recall that it was imported for the first time in Tuscany in 774 by Charlemagne and spread then throughout the rest of Italy and that the first tarragon sauce was of their invention, made from the leaves of the tarragon mixed with garlic, of breadcrmbs soaked in vinegar with salt and olive oil. Cumin is a herbal plant of the Umbelliferae. With its seeds it is possible to perfume different types of foods: bread, cheeses, doughnuts, sausages and even white cabbage when it is cooked in the pot. Red peppers in Tuscany are reserved above all for the cooking of fish, even if the new theory on food today brings about the substitution of this with pepper to all recipes. Aromatic herbs, all - and here we have only spoken about the most widely spread and used - have a great power in the art of cooking; they have the power to give tastes in simple, natural ways a long way from any sophistication; they have the power to enhance flavours; they have, finally, the power to create from little (above all the left-overs) dishes that become a true and proper delicacy.

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