The basil harvest is upon us! It’s one of the world’s most popular herbs – and with good reason – but how much do you really know about basil?
1. Eat your words
Unfurl the red carpet for the king of herbs! The words ‘basil’ and ‘basilicum’ are derived from the Greek ‘basilikon’, meaning ‘royal’.
2. Legend has it
Basil is the herb that launched a thousand myths is the focus of John Keats’s Isabella. After her lover is slain, Isabella takes his head and bathes it in her tears, eventually hiding it in a pot of sweet basil, now a symbol of love.
3. The travelling herb
Though it’s an Italian favourite, basil actually originated in India over 4,000 years ago. From India and southeast Asia, it travelled westwards along the spice route, making its way to Persia, the Middle East and eventually Europe.
4. Careful how you cut
In ancient Greece, basil was so revered that they forbade it to be harvested with anything other than gold or silver. Experts today recommend tearing basil – never cutting – as metal oxidises the basil, causing it to blacken and lose flavour.
5. Healing powers
Basil was said to have magical healing powers, used for embalming by the ancient Egyptians and to treat fever and repel mosquitos in Africa. In India, it held religious significance – called ‘tulsi’ or ‘the incomparable one’ by Hindus. Over the years, it has been used to remove warts, ease flatulence and was even fed to horses as an aphrodisiac.
6. Grown from goodness
Basil isn’t just a tasty addition to your pizza and pasta. Naturopaths recommend it to ease headaches, sore throats, coughs and skin irritation, as it’s rich in vitamins A, C and K as well as copper, calcium and magnesium.
7. Know your types
From Thai to lemon, to purple and Mexican spicy, there are over 150 varieties of basil – each boasting different leaf shapes, colours, aromas and flavour profiles.
8. A late arrival
Britain didn’t see basil until the early 16th century, when it was primarily used for medicine and perfume making. People only began eating it at the end of the 20th century.
9. Then and now
Word has it that when Pope John Paul II made an official visit to Genoa in 1990, a local priest slipped both basil and olive oil into the Holy Water in which the city was about to be blessed.
10. Grow it yourself
To see your basil flourish, plant in January through to April and choose a sunny, sheltered spot. Before it flowers, pick the tender young leaves to encourage future growth, bring out its best flavour and truly make it sing.
All facts extracted from ‘Notes on the herb Basil’ by Simon Parkes, April 2017.