If someone held a gun to my head and said “You can only use one herb ever again, choose now punk or I’ll blow your brains out” (admittedly, an unlikely scenario), my answer would be instantaneous: “Basil. Put the shooter away, schmuck.”
Why anyone in their right mind would pay 70p to one of the supermarkets for a few dead stalks of cut basil rotting in plastic wrapping defeats me, when for about £1 you can buy a small pot of living basil from a garden centre in April, re-pot it into a bigger container with decent compost, stick it in a sunny spot, water regularly and have a guaranteed endless supply of fabulous fresh basil right through to October.
Ocimum basilicum is a tender, sun-loving annual, native to the warm climes of southern Europe and western Asia, so wouldn’t take kindly to a single night outside in the chilly UK. I keep mine on the kitchen windowsill where it gets all the afternoon sun. On those rare occasions the weather’s hot I let it enjoy a day in the back garden while always remembering to bring it in at dusk. Flowering stalks begin to appear in high summer. Snip them off and the lovely herb obligingly gets bushier and bushier and those sublimely aromatic, green-as-the-greenest-green leaves can be picked whenever needed. Eventually the exhausted thing dries and withers, has a defiant late-flowering and finally runs to seed. Sounds rather like my life’s trajectory, come to think of it!
Basil is my favourite herb because Italian cuisine is my favourite cuisine. Or perhaps Italian is my favourite cuisine because basil is my favourite herb. Either way round, both statements are true. Basil is the essential ingredient in a cornucopia of Italian dishes: tomato sauces, salads, soups and, in particular, pesto – that marvellous miracle of human ingenuity from Genova. Pesto, the best sauce for pasta yet invented, is easy to make. It needs absolutely no cooking; merely five ingredients and a light upper-body workout. The word comes from the verb pestare, to pound, to crush, and it actually wouldn’t be pesto without using a pestle (same etymology) & mortar, because electronic blenders make it too claggy and blitzed. Pine nuts (the edible seeds of the stone pine, Pinus pinea) are the only expensive component of pesto. They have to be imported since an 80ft Mediterranean evergreen cannot readily be grown on a windowsill. But a 100g (3½ oz) bag of pine nuts is enough to make four batches of pesto and only costs about £4, so it’s not too prohibitive. The only equipment required is the aforementioned pestle & mortar, an ancient two-piece utensil as integral to a kitchen cupboard as a saucepan. Here’s the classic pesto recipe:
50g (2oz) basil leaves
25g (1oz) pine nuts
2-3 garlic cloves
25g (1oz) parmesan cheese, grated
approx. 100ml (3½ fl oz) olive oil
1 Bash, grind and pulverise the basil, garlic and pine nuts with the pestle until you have a thick purée (exercise that does more for biceps, glutens and pecs than ‘the’ gym ever will).
2 Add the cheese and blend well.
3 Add the oil a little at a time, stirring until it all amalgamates and has a thick, viscous consistency.
This amount of pesto is enough to stir into four helpings of pasta (in Genova they traditionally use spaghetti, linguine, trenette or fusilli). Made in larger quantities pesto keeps well if packed tight in jars and covered with a layer of olive oil. A tablespoon of pesto also works well when swirled into soups at the last minute or dolloped on a baked potato instead of butter.
The word basil comes originally from the Greek basileus, meaning king or emperor – a derivation that underlines its venerable status as the ‘king of herbs’. Basil was brought to Britain by the Romans in the 2nd century, early enough for it to be awarded its own name in Welsh, brenhinllys (more or less a direct translation of ‘king of herbs’). Because it doesn’t grow naturally here, basil fell out of general culinary use and by the 17th century English herbalists were only recommending it as a perfume or as a disinfectant to repel flies and fleas. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that basil was rediscovered as a cooking ingredient in the UK, largely thanks to the seminal 1954 book Italian Food by Elizabeth David (1913-1992). Now it’s a familiar flavour in every Bolognese sauce or pizza topping, but the mass-produced, freeze-dried version used by the commercial food industry is an insipid travesty compared to fresh basil; the leaves rapidly lose most of their spicy, pungent hit soon after being picked. Better by far to grow your own. What feeble pun can I end with? Hmm…let’s think…oh, this will have to do: basil – can’t fawlt it.