GREEK HERBS AND SPICES
In ancient Greece where Hippocrates (460-370 before Christ), the great father of medicine lived, the use and implement of herbs from the Greek countryside was the base of medical science. The herbs were considered as magic, and up to this date they are widely used throughout Greece as a supplement to standard medicine.
Greece is famous for its unique herbs and spices so it is not surprising that Greek cuisine is all about herbs – their fragrance permeates every island. Herbs grow so profusely in Greece that you cannot avoid crushing them underfoot as you walk. They grow as a wild carpet of the forests, scrublands and mountains in most islands and many people pick what they need from these shrubby native plants and grow their own pots of vital herbs like basil, thyme, oregano and mint on windowsills, patios and terraces. The Greek cook does not have to shell out exorbitant amounts of money for a handful of pre-packaged supermarket herbs that are far from fresh!
The excellent quality of Greek herbs and spices reflects the country’s long periods of sunshine and the different kinds of landscape. This special landscape makes Greek flora so rich, that from the 7500 different species of plants growing in Greece, 850 of them are only found there. Some of the best herbs grow there naturally – herbs like chamomile; Mountain Tea; tilio (infusion of lime leaves), sage, thyme, oregano and basil are chosen above others by some of the celebrity chefs across Europe.
The number of herbs and spice-producing plants that grow naturally in Greece is quite unbelievable. Generations of Greek cooks have focused on many that have now become essentials of traditional Greek cooking. However, recent years have seen an increase in imported herbs and spices, some of which have become immediately popular, while others less so. Herbs and spices can be found fresh and dried, flaked and whole, as leaves and stems, as seeds, in pods, and other variations.
Because of the many herbs and spices used on a daily basis, there’s not just one herb or spice that defines Greek cooking. But the following would be useful store cupboard items.
Camomile (or chamomile) takes its name from the Greek words for “ground” and “apple,” because it grows close to the ground and its strong aroma is reminiscent of apples. It is one of the most loved teas in Greece and is regularly gathered in the wild, washed thoroughly, and laid out to dry at home. Dried leaves are narrow and spear-shaped, 1/2-inch to 1-inch long and light tan to pale green. Flowers are 1/4-inch diameter yellow-orange bulbs (they look like daisies). Stems are 1/16-inch diameter and shades of brown. In the wild, fields of camomile look like a light dusting of snow.
Marjoram leaves are light grayish-green and oval-spade shape. Marjoram is often confused with oregano, but it has a milder and slightly sweet flavor. Marjoram probably originated in Greece. Today Egypt is the major exporter and it is cultivated worldwide.
Both oregano and marjoram are members of the mint family. Many botanists consider marjoram a variety of oregano.
Ancient Greeks planted marjoram on the graves of their beloved in the belief that by doing so the deceased would enjoy eternal peace and happiness. Hippocrates ascribed several medical uses to marjoram. Marjoram was one of the herbs and spices used by the ancient Egyptians in the embalming process. Ancient Greeks and Romans made head wreaths of marjoram for wedding couples as a symbol of love, honor, and happiness.
Medicinally, marjoram is used as a steam inhalant to clear the sinuses and relieve laryngitis. Marjoram tea sweetened with honey helps preserve the voice of professional singers.
Mint or Spearmint (menta or diosmos) :
The plants generally grow to be one to two feet tall and emit a fresh aroma. The leaves and stems tend to be slightly hairy. Leaves generally grow to be one and a half to three and a half inches long and a half an inch to one and a half inches wide. Peppermint has purple flowers. While the species that make up the Mentha genus are widely distributed and can be found in many environments, most Mentha grow best in wet environments and moist soils. Mints will grow 10-120 cm tall and can spread over an indeterminate area. Due to their tendency to spread unchecked, mints are considered invasive.
The origin of the name Oregano comes from ancient Greece. It is a compound from the Greek words oros (mountain) and ganos (joy), i.e. ‘joy of the mountain’, probably due to the fact that the oregano roots prohibit the washing of the mountain slopes by rain or just by its fantastic smell. In any case, those who have visited Greece, where oregano covers the hillsides and scents the summer air, would probably agree with this name. Plants in the genus Origanum are can be perennial ground covers, tender perennials or even small perennial subshrubs. Even Origanum vulgare can take many forms. Most have stems that can get very woody. Foliage: Oregano leaves are oval, dark green and in opposite pairs. Some varieties have fuzzy leaves, others not. Flowers: The flowers stalks are spiky and may be white, pink or purple. Oregano starts out as a ground hugging rosette of leaves, but it can easily grow to about 2′ tall.
Sage (faskomilo) :
Sage that grews wild upon the Greek mountains looks a lot like the usual Garden Sage. However, it grows quite a bit taller than Garden Sage and has a unique flavor with strong camphor over-tones that not everyone finds appealing. The sage plant is a round, low-growing evergreen shrub that grows to 36 inches in diameter. Its lance-shaped leaves are grayish-green and feel “downy” to the touch because of very short and fine hairs covering the leaves. The flowers are creamy-white to purple-pink and grow in whorls or rings in groups of 2 to 6 at the top of the central stem.
Basil also belongs to the mint family of herbs. In Greece it is grown mostly in plant pots and creates a beautiful green round plant that is said to keep away mosquitos and flies from the area where it grows. Basil grows to between 30-130 cm tall, with opposite, light green, silky leaves 3-11 cm long and 1-6 cm broad. The flowers are small, white in color and arranged in a terminal spike. Unusual among Lamiaceae, the four stamens and the pistil are not pushed under the upper lip of the corolla, but lay over the inferior. After entomophilous pollination, the corolla falls off and four round achenes develop inside the bilabiate calyx.
Greeks consider vassiliko (basil) to be a religious herb, as religion states that when Saint Irine went out in search for the holy cross that Jesus Christ was crusified on, she could not find it for a very long time. At one point she came across a field that was full of the basil (vassiliko) herb and in that field, underneath the vassiliko she found the holy cross. Until today Greeks respect basil alot and many plant it outside the front doors of their houses and also it is supposed to keep away the evil spirits and insects.
Varieties of this perennial undershrub have woody and fibrous roots, with numerous round, hard, and branched stems, usually 4 to 8 inches long. The narrow elliptical leaves are greenish-grey, 1/8 inch long and 1/16 inch wide. The conical flowers are pink and grow in whorls (rings) at the branch terminus. Flower petals are rectangular. The seeds are round and very small, about 170,000 to the ounce. Thyme is native to the Mediterranean, and historical records attribute, in part, the naming of the thyme plant to Theophrastus, 3rd century B.C.E. Greek philosopher and naturalist. Ancient Greeks believed thyme and its extracts could restore vigor and mental acuity. They burned it as a religious incense to give them courage. It was an ingredient in ritual altar fires, to purify the sacrifices to the gods. Thyme was burned as an incense at funerals and placed in the coffin of the dead in the belief that the soul of the deceased took up residence in the flowers of the thyme plant, and that thyme assured the passage of the deceased into the afterlife.
Rosemary is a member of the mint family, and is a woody evergreen shrub that usually grows to 18-24 inches tall. It has leathery leaves which are green (sunny side) and white (shady side). Trumpet-shaped blue-white flowers grow on spikes which extend from where leaves attach to the stem. There are at least 24 types of upright rosemary and another 12 types of creeping rosemary. As a medicine, various preparations and extracts made from rosemary were used to treat stomach and abdominal pain, to soothe mouth ulcers and sore throats, to lessen the pains of arthritic joints, to promote healing of wounds and of eczema. Rosemary is called “the herb of remembrance.” Rosemary tea is said to act as a stimulant for study and concentration.
The dill plant grows to a height of 8-30 inches. The leaves are feathery and fernlike. The plant is a dark sea green color, with yellow flowers. The light brown seeds are about 3.5 mm (0.15 in) long, with a winged and oval shape. One side of the seed is flat, with two ridges; the other side, is convex with three ridges and three oil channels.
Dill has a bouquet that is aromatic and somewhat sweet, and a flavor that is aromatic and slightly bitter, similar to caraway. It is not a “hot” herb, like red chili peppers; rather, dill provides a delicate taste sensation. Ancient Greek and Roman soldiers used dill as a medicinal herb, by placing burned dill seeds on their wounds to promote healing. In Medieval Europe, dill could not be grown fast enough to satisfy consumer demand for its uses in love potions, for casting spells and for protection against witchcraft. Carrying a bag of dried dill over the heart was considered protection against hexes.
Fennel leaves look a lot like fresh dill. The stalks have small feathery dark green leaves. Fennel is a perennial herb native to the Mediterranean region, and grows in the wild in most temperate climate regions. Fennel has a definite anise (or licorice) flavor. Fennel leaves are widely used in Greek cooking both as an herb and as a green. Large quantities are added to stews and ragouts, as well as fricassee dishes and fritters. Fennel is generally used to flavor meat, seafood, and vegetable dishes, and is also an ingredient in delicious savory pies (pites).
The ancient Greeks named the herb “marathon” – derived from the Greek “maraino” (eg: to grow thin). They believed fennel increased one’s longevity, strength, and courage.
The ancient Greeks named the herb to commemorate a battle at Marathon (490 BCE) against the Persians that was fought in a field of fennel.
“Selino” (??????, pronounced SEH-lee-no) is most often translated as “celery” in English-language recipes for Greek foods, but this isn’t quite accurate. “Selinon” was the ancient Greek name for parsley, which was a variety with a taste closely resembling today’s celery, thus the confusion. The correct translation is “wild celery,” or cutting celery,” which is similar but with a more pungent and flavorful taste. Celeriac leaves are a good substitute.
Wild celery can be found classified as both an herb and a vegetable. It has slimmer stalks and more leaves than thick-stalked celery, both of which are used in cooking. It delivers more of a statement and creates a more authentic dish. It is available fresh in many large supermarkets and specialty greengrocers, and can be grown in pots at home. It should be used in smaller quantities than thick-stalked celery, and added to cooked dishes later in the cooking. Cooked, it may wilt quickly and look overdone, but it delivers on taste. In appearance, the leaves look a lot like flat-leaf parsley, but crushing a leaf in your fingers will let you know which is which. It is predominantly used in soups, casserole dishes, and salads.
Flat-leaved parsley (Maidanos) :
In modern cooking, parsley is used for its leaf in much the same way as coriander (which is also known as Chinese parsley or cilantro), although parsley is perceived to have a milder flavor. Parsley grows best in moist, well drained soil, with full sun. It frequently has difficulties germinating because of Furanocoumarins in its seed coat. If the leaves are not harvested, the plant eventually ceases to produce them in abundance and grows a thicker central stalk with small flowers instead. Parsley attracts winged wildlife. The swallowtail butterfly uses parsley as a host plant for its larvae. Caterpillars are black and green striped with yellow dots, and will feast upon parsley for two weeks before turning into butterflies. Bees also visit the blooms. Seed eaters such as the lesser goldfinch feed on the seed.
Coriander (Coliandro) :
Coriander seeds are available in sealed packs. Pour-and-shake containers of ground coriander are sometimes available, but it is recommended to buy the seeds and grind them yourself. When these rounded seeds are crushed with a mortar and pestle, they give off a strong sweet smell somewhere between cinnamon, rose, orange, and clove. In Greek cooking, coriander is used with pork, mushrooms, in chocolate for cakes, in stuffed cabbage, and although not widely used, is great in candy-making.
Bay leaves (Dafni):
Bay laurel trees are indigenous to the Mediterranean and parts of India and Africa. Used primarily as a flavoring herb in Greek cooking, bay leaves are used by Bedouins in parts of Saharan Africa to flavor their coffees. It has been cultivated as a shrub and tree since the time of Homer, the ancient Greek writer and philosopher. Homer’s “Odyssey” mentions bay laurel as an herb and medicine used by Ulysses. Greeks of antiquity considered the bay laurel a sacred tree because of folklore associating the tree with both Apollo and Zeus. Pythia, Apollo’s priestess and Oracle of Delphi, is said to have chewed bay leaves as part of the oracular process. In an earlier era at Delphi, Apollo is said to have made a wreath or crown from laurel to signify his victory over, slaying of, the dragon Python – the original “crown of victory,” which was later (in history) bestowed upon winning atheletes at the Pythian games (at Delphi) and at the Olympian games of Greek antiquity. Greek mythology also gave the herb its Greek name. Daphne, a beautiful nymph and daughter of the river god Peneios (Lathonas) and earth goddes Ge, was transformed by her parents into a bay laurel tree in order to retain her virginity and to escape Apollo’s lustful pursuit. Hence, bay laurel is associated with purity and acts of purification.
Dried bay leaves, either crushed or whole, are readily available in disposable containers. It is also sold at herb farms for a kitchen herb garden.
Usually encountered in dried form, bay leaves are 1 1/2 – 3 inches long and are elliptical or lance shaped. Leaves are greenish-tan, and look leathery and slightly waxy, with a natural wave pattern around the edges. Leaves have a central fibrous channel (stem extension) with pronounced branching channels.
In cooking, bay leaves are used to flavor soups, stews, meat and fish dishes. They are excellent used in tomato-rich recipes. Olive oil and apple cider vinegar seasoned with bay leaves may be used to further enrich a fresh garden salad. Bay leaves are used to add a woodsy taste during cooking, and are generally removed from the dish before serving.
- Cinnamon (kanella)
- pepper (black and white)
- cumin (kimino)
- paprika (paprika)