By Niel Vaughan
For centuries, basil has been central to our tables, medicines and religious ceremonies. From the mint family, this pungent herb likely originated on the tropical sub-continent- thus preferring hot weather but is cultivated as a perennial in the cooler climates of Victoria, Tasmania and even as far as New Zealand’s South Island.
Due to the high liquid content of its leaves, all the members of this tasty family, including sweet basil, holy basil, African purple and lemon basil, are extremely frost-sensitive.
As diverse as its culinary uses are the many rituals and beliefs associated with basil. Jewish folklore recommends using basil for strength while fasting. Dwarf bushes of basil are presented in a pot with a poem and a paper carnation on the religious holidays of St. John and Anthony in Portugal. Orthodox churches use basil to prepare and sprinkle holy water on things that need purification.
The French still call it “herbe royale”. Holy basil, Tulsi, is highly revered in Hinduism, taking centre stage in meditation ceremonies for worshippers of Lakshmi and Vishnu. On the other hand in Greece, and other parts of Europe, basil was a symbol of Satan.
Here in Victoria, it’s peak basil season, pairing perfectly with all the bounties of the summer harvest. One method of preserving this abundance for the cold months is to blanch, dry and freeze the leaves. Although some might be tempted to make it into a pesto to be frozen, this is not recommended; the combination of ingredients that makes pesto, with a basil base, leave a metallic and bitter taste when unfrozen.
Other basil kitchen lore, holy or not, is to tear it by hand rather than cut with a knife. The metal of the blade oxidises the leaf, turning it black with a metallic tang.
So how does one get the most flavour from basil, and for most herbs for that matter? Bruising. One favourite way is by rolling pin or wine bottle— empty or not— over the basil. Or, if the moment presents, place the fleshy green leaves on the palm of your non-dominant hand and with your other hand give the basil a good butt slap.
Repeat for fun and flavour.
See you at the next Slow Food Melbourne Farmers’ Market on Saturday 28th March.