Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

The razzle dazzle in humble basil

Ocimum basilicum (or ‘Basil’ to its friends) is probably Italy’s favourite herb. Originating in Asia, where Thai, lemon or holy basil are the most popular types, sweet basil has become a staple of Italian cuisine. Even a simple dish can be sublime, like tomato and basil bruschetta, made with salt-free Tuscan bread.

Basil tastes best when fresh, preserving its aroma and flavour, which fades quickly when overcooked or dried. It can add a wonderfully light, minty taste to salads, or lift a baked chicken or lamb dish. Of course, basil is used most in classic Italian pasta dishes, or in the form of pesto, where it’s mixed with parmesan cheese and olive oil to create a rich, luxurious paste.

You probably already know how good it tastes. But did you know that it has special symbolism in some cultures? Like the Gauls, who only allowed those who’d been through purification rituals to collect it, Hindus consider it sacred, a key food of the gods. In Jewish folklore basil is thought to give strength while fasting and thanks to the works of Rome’s Pliny the Elder, who thought it an aphrodisiac, some people even believe a gift of a basil plant brings love, wealth and luck.

Something to contemplate next time you’re tucking into your favourite pasta dish.