"…There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember…"
This pungently flavoured herb (Rosmarinus officinalis) is now so closely associated with meat cookery that you could be forgiven for forgetting that it has long had many other uses, both culinary and otherwise.
During its more than 2000 years of recorded human use, rosemary has been used in a multitude of medicinal applications. In addition, even though the herb is closely linked to meat dishes, it has a long track record of partnering other dishes as well; poultry, seafood, vegetables, and even sometimes desserts. It also reeks of symbolism, with many folkloric associations rising over the years - some of which last to this day.
A bit of history and folklore
Rosemary is native to the rocky, coastal areas of the Mediterranean, where is would have been collected wild thousands of years ago. During the Roman era, instead of as a culinary accoutrement, the herb was used primarily for curative and medicinal purposes, and was prescribed for such diverse ailments as depression, headaches, rheumatism, toothaches, gout and baldness. Banckes' Herbal, one of the first herb compendiums, printed in England in 1525 dispenses this sage advice for rosemary;
"Take the flowers thereof and boyle them in fayre water
and drink that water for it is much worthe
against all manner of evils in the body."¹
It is said that Pliny named the herb rosmarinus, which translates from Latin to "dew of the sea"². Several authorities posit that Pliny's "dew" is actually a reference to the grey and shimmering underside of the plant's leaves, which gave the potent illusion of dew to Mediterranean coastal hillsides.
During the height of the Black Death, when bubonic plague had 14th Century Europe in the grip of abject fear, terrified citizens employed countless methods and rituals to keep the disease at bay. One of the less hysterical of these ploys was the burning of rosemary. The plant has pungent essential oils that some felt could drive away the creeping miasma - the putrid and infected air that was believed to harbor and transmit the plague. This remedy persisted longer than one might think, with some early 20th Century French hospitals burning rosemary during wartime epidemics.
Rosemary has always held strong and varied symbolic associations, including for friendship, weddings and funerals. However, the quote that opens this piece, uttered by Ophelia in Hamlet, serves to illustrate the herb's most enduring association - remembrance. The belief that rosemary aids the power of memory goes a long way back. Pharaohs were often buried with rosemary, to aid in the recollection of previous earthly incarnations. Greek scholars wore garlands of the herb, so that their philosophical musings and mathematical endeavors would be recalled the next day. A sprig was often buried along with the casket in funeral services, to help the living take with them strong memories of the dead. It is Remembrance Day however (and Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand), that owns the most enduring symbolism surrounding rosemary. Every 11th of November, friends and relatives pause to remember that at 11:00AM on the 11th of November 1918, the constantly roaring guns of the Western Front finally fell silent. Armistice day. A small frond of rosemary worn in a coat buttonhole, or on a bracelet is always present.
Rosemary in the garden, and in the kitchen
Rosemary belongs to the massive and diverse Lamiaceae family, which contains some 180 genera and 3500 species, the type representative of which is mint. All members of this family have square stems, but more importantly, they all have filament-shaped oil glands on the surface of the leaves and stems. These glands contain most of the essential oils, and thus most of the flavour and aroma. Rosemary is no exception, with its leaf top a deep green colour, contrasting with the oil gland-laden reverse side, which presents as a pale, silvery white.
It is an evergreen perennial shrub that is hardy and thrives in a wide variety of climates. Anything short of heavily frosted areas should see the plant do well. Most specimens grow to a modest shrub height of 1 metre or thereabouts, but older specimens can grow into impressively large bushes of up to 3 metres in height. Rosemary often grows rampant in suburban areas, so if you see a bush, (quietly) grab a small branch, as it is quite easy to propagate. Plant directly into well-drained soil and for the first few months keep damp, but never wet. Don't fertilize in this early period either, as it will encourage root growth as the plant attempts to find nutrients.
The plant has branching, hard and woody stems that support needle-like leaves that are roughly 2 cm in length. The plant blooms during mid-winter through to spring with pretty and quite small pale blue flowers, however some cultivars bloom yellow, white or pink. Bees that visit these flowers produce a distinctive and delicious rosemary honey. The plant has a strong and unmistakable aroma, with borneol, bornyl acetate, cineole, camphene, pinene and in particular Camphor leading to its slightly resinous smell.
There is no mistaking rosemary in the kitchen. It has a pungently unique flavour that has no close substitute. It has a pine-like, resiny and camphorous flavour, yet without the cooling menthol taste that one normally associates with these elements. Rather, it has a warm, lingering flavour coupled with forthright savoury overtones. It is said that a little rosemary goes a long way, and I am inclined to agree. Use too much, and you can easily overpower a dish, with more subtle tastes being overtaken and possibly even masked.
It is very popular flavouring agent in the cuisines of the Mediterranean coast, particularly Southern France, Spain, Italy and Greece. Rosemary enjoys a long held association with grilled and roasted meat dishes, and these partnerships hit a zenith with lamb. Lamb and mint may be the most famously classic combo, but lamb and rosemary isn't far behind.
Don't however, assume that red meat is the only choice when cooking with rosemary. It can also partner poultry and some of the fuller flavoured cuts of fish, such as tuna, and swordfish. However, a few cooking techniques and certain ingredients will usually accompany when rosemary is used with fish and poultry. Grilling, particularly over an open flame provides food with a strong, charred flavour that has the ability to match rosemary. Also expect strongly flavoured ingredients that won't be overshadowed by rosemary to come into the fray. Think garlic, pepper, anchovies, mustard and even chili. And of course, rosemary can also partner vegetable dishes with grace and ease, but once again - you guessed it, there will usually be bold and strong flavours to go along with it.
Rosemary leaves are quite dense, and at 2 cm in length they can are coarsely unpalatable when left whole. This means rosemary leaves are almost always chopped finely before adding to a dish. The physical structure of rosemary gives it a few unique uses in the kitchen that are not only flavoursome, but practical as well. The stalks of rosemary are not only long, thin and rigidly woody, they are in the main straight as well. Once most of the leaves have been removed, they can be used as sturdy and flavoursome skewers for the BBQ. Try cubes of marinated lamb, chunks of meaty tuna, or even field mushrooms that have been brushed with sea salt and olive oil. The stalks will gently imbue the food with a not-too-overwhelming taste of rosemary.
With the leaves left on, rosemary stalks have another funky use on the BBQ. Whatever you are grilling, bring out a small bowl of good quality, flavoursome olive oil. Maybe smash a clove of garlic and add that for some extra flavour. Dip the rosemary branch into the oil, and use it to brush and baste whatever you are barbecuing, leaving it not only moist, but gently perfumed with rosemary.
Preparing rosemary is a fairly simple affair, simply run your thumb and forefinger along the woody stem, in the opposite direction that the leaves grow. They will easily fall away and are ready for chopping. There is no herb that I prefer dried over fresh, with the possible exception of rigani, a wonderful form of dried Greek oregano. Rosemary dries better than most herbs, but the already tough leaves become hard and almost crunchy when dried. I recommend seeking out fresh rosemary at the greengrocer, as it is available year round. To store fresh rosemary, wrap loosely in a moistened sheet of kitchen paper, and keep in the vegetable compartment of your refrigerator for 10 days to a fortnight.
The following recipe is a multipurpose marinade that can be whipped up in a matter of seconds, yet repays handsomely in the flavour stakes. It is sorta Greek, but sorta not. They are classic flavours and I was glad to see that momomom has already paid homage to them. This would be an absolute gem rubbed into lamb set for the BBQ, but poultry, meaty fish steaks or even chunky vegetables such as mushrooms, capsicum, artichoke, celeriac and asparagus would all taste superb with a brush of this flavour-packed paste.
Rosemary, garlic and lemon rub for meat or poultry
This is best done in a mortar and pestle, but don't fret if your kitchen lacks a set, a food processor and even a knife method follows.
Place the rosemary, garlic, lemon zest and anchovies if using into the mortar. Bang away with the pestle until you have a coarse paste - not completely smooth. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
For the food processor, simply throw all the ingredients in together and whiz until they are finely chopped - but once again - not to a smooth paste.
And if you only have a knife and chopping board. Finely chop the rosemary, garlic and anchovies (if using). Add the remaining ingredients and stir well.
This marinade keeps well, refrigerated for up to three days. The recipe yields about 3/4 of a cup - or enough for a pretty big BBQ.
² Thanks to izubachi and Tlachtga for their scholarly Latin assistance.