Basil is one of the most popular herbs in Italian cooking and it is now widely grown all over the world. But, this flavoursome fresh taste of summer hasn’t always enjoyed such celebrated status.
Although basil features prominently in Italian cooking, what is interesting to note is that this herb’s history did not begin in Italy at all, nor did it begin in Europe. According to research, many believe that basil actually originated in Asia. Some claim it hails from as far east as China and others believe that its origins can be traced back to India. Regardless of where it began, what can be said for certain is that basil has continued to be grown and cultivated for thousands of years.
Basil has a rich history that has seen it both loved and hated all over the world. Before becoming a favourite ingredient in so many dishes, particularly in Italy, it was at the centre of many beliefs and superstitions.
Ancient Greeks saw basil as a sign of poverty, hate and misfortune and many believed it to be poisonous. This false belief may have been due to the fact that basil did not grow near rue – an evergreen shrub with strong scented leaves commonly used in herbal medicine – which was seen as an enemy to poisonous plants.
In Crete, basil was believed to be an emblem of the devil and was placed on window sills to ward away his influence.
There were also several superstitions during the 1500s attributing the herb to scorpions. Among many cultures, it was believed that handling basil leaves delicately would provide a pleasant fragrance, but being too rough and causing the leaves to bruise would breed scorpions. Another belief was that a basil leaf could produce a scorpion if placed in the right conditions and left for two days. But perhaps the most ludicrous of these was the belief that smelling too much basil could result in scorpions growing inside one’s brain.
Contrary to these scorpion-related beliefs, however, basil was believed to protect people from scorpion stings in ancient Africa.
In other countries, however, basil has also been known to symbolise love and romance. The herb was believed to ensure a safe journey into the afterlife in parts of Europe and India, and was said to open the gates of Heaven in Egypt and Greece. And in parts of Asia and the Middle East, basil was planted near gravestones as a symbol of love.
Over time, basil also became a symbol of love in Italy. When a woman wore a sprig of basil in her hair, it was a sign that she was looking for love, while a man would place a sprig of basil in his hair in an attempt to win over a woman’s heart. Similarly, a basil pot placed outside a woman’s door was a sign that she was ready for her suitor. Its symbolic meaning was also similar in Romania, where a man accepting a sprig of basil from a young woman was considered to be engaged to her.
Despite basil’s interesting and diverse history, one thing that remains certain is that this well-regarded herb has become a favourite all over the world. There are numerous varieties of basil, each with its own unique characteristics, but it is sweet basil that is the most commonly used in Italian cuisine.
Basil pairs beautifully with tomatoes, olive oil, fish, pasta and pizza to name but a few; and is also a key ingredient in pesto and margherita pizza.