Half a Hundred herbs week 3 – Basil
Goodness this is late! What with a migraine, wordpress taking all afternoon to update and an adventure with podcasting I’ll be talking about later this week, somehow time got away with me.However, here we are. And I know that basil is by no stretch of the imagination a herb for winter. It’s an annual, not remotely frost tolerant, loves sunlight and hates cold water, and goes sublimely with all those high summer Mediterranean dishes with tomatoes and courgettes and aubergines. But it’s in January that I start to crave basil:
Bruised leaves of basil,
green, silken-slick, the warm smell –
liquorice and blood.
It’s an odd, and an ambiguous kind of smell. It makes me think of sausages. In Tudor England, it was apparently used exclusively for its scent, while in Europe it was a culinary herb. It had semi-magical healing properties in some countries and in others was believed to breed scorpions. I some places it was believed to be a symbol of misfortune, and in others it would only grow if it was insulted.
But most of all it will always remind me of a holiday we spent in Aix in the late summer, hot, sunny, loud with the wiry scratchy sound of cicadas (the symbol of welcome and hospitality in Provence) and gifted with the luxuriant salads fruit and herbs of the local market every day. We bought this enormous pot of basil there and kept it on the windowsill of our flat to use much more lavishly than I ever do here.
It will be a few weeks yet before gardening can start. The soil is too wett even for clearing last year’s weeds and debris, and it won’t be worth starting seeds, even in the house until there is a bit more stretch in the daylight. And I’m craving sunlight and warmth, and beginning to feel an itch to get moving – like the birds who are warming up for the dawn chorus when I go out in the early morning.
So at this time I buy a pot of basil from the supermarket and put it on the windowsill in the kitchen where it will get any sun that’s going. Even if I don’t use it, it’s green vigour will keep me cheerful until the real thing starts – and I can always put a leaf or two in the spaghetti bolognese that we’re having for tea tonight.