A herbal history

Mon, 05/04/2009 - 10:38
Words by Paolo Arrigo - Pictures by John Heseltine

Italian cooking makes good use of herbs, and who could imagine pollo arrosto without rosemary, or saltimbocca without sage?
We know just how much modern cooking owes to the Romans because of the surprising amount of literature dating from that era.

Texts by famous Roman writers including Virgil, Dioscorides, Horace, and Pliny the Elder talk about plants and their uses, Roman gardens, cooking, and Roman life and culture. In fact, De Re Coquinaria (‘Concerning Culinary Matters’) by Apicius in the first century AD is thought to be the first cookbook ever written.
Much research has been done by Claire Ryley from Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex, England, and if you are interested in learning more, then you should read her superb book Roman Gardens and their Plants.

Madness, Warts and Flatulence…

  • Chives preserved in oil was eaten by Emperor Nero to enhance his voice.

  • Dill was used to flavour food and to treat nursing mothers. Pliny does add the caveat that it ‘causes belching’.

  • Ocimum Basilicum, or basil mixed with cobbler’s blacking apparently removed warts, and was said to ease flatulence.
    Pliny warned that over-indulgence would cause madness, coma, and breeding of worms, scorpions and lice.

  • Red and white forms of garlic were grown and used in cooking, salad dressings and, Virgil tells us, in several ‘country medicines’. It was also used to treat madness, and Pliny said that any resulting odour could be neutralised by eating roast beetroot.

  • Onions, too, were considered very important. They were eaten both raw and cooked, but also preserved in salt. Pliny thought that because they made the eyes water, they must be good for poor vision.
    Mixed with salt and rue, they were used to treat dog bites and, mixed with chicken fat, they were rubbed on blisters and warts, as well as onto bald heads as a hair restorer.
    After eating all those onions, mint was mixed with honey to sweeten the breath. It was also used to flavour wine and sauces and, as today, was thought to be good for the stomach.

  • Fennel, another fragrant plant and one of the oldest herbs in cultivation, was regarded by the Romans as an early slimming aid, and its dried leaves were used to treat eye ailments. Gladiators chewed the seeds to give them stamina and courage, and also to stave off hunger. They should have saved some for the lions!

  • Rocket, then as now, was a very popular vegetable and salad ingredient, and was also used to flavour sauces. (Try using rocket in place of basil genovese to make rocket pesto.)
    It was reputed to be an aphrodisiac, and also repelled human parasites and removed spots and freckles when applied in vinegar. Taken with wine, rocket eased the pain of floggings, although it’s difficult to say whether it was actually the rocket or the wine which really helped.

Don’t try this at home!

Bay was regarded as a symbol of victory and peace by the Romans. They believed that bay was never struck by lightning, so Emperor Tiberius wore a crown of it at all times.

Another strong-smelling herb, oregano, was used as a garland because of its pleasing perfume, but was also said to repel snakes and other poisonous beasts.

Its Latin name salvia means ‘to save’, and it was used to staunch wounds and clean ulcers.

When you learn that the Romans also grew hemp, or cannabis, you might think that too was because of its euphoric effect, but it was never taken as a drug. It was used, however, for making strong ropes and nets. The ripe seeds of hemp were eaten as a contraceptive, whilst the green seeds were crushed to cure earache. Perhaps they could have dispensed with both and just said ‘Sorry, I’ve got earache.’

Click here to discover how Italian amari are connected to the tonic properties of herbs.

This article was originally published in the print edition of ITALY Magazine.