Ah, Basil. From its humble origins in the wilds of India, central Africa and Southeast Asia, Ocimum basilicum is one of the culinary worlds most popular herbs, finding its way into dishes from every corner of the planet. With an incredible amount of variation, (over 150 different types of basil and counting!) from “Holy Basil” to “African Blue Basil” to “Thai Basil”, this strong, fragrant, and often sweet tasting member of the mint family has held some surprisingly important roles in history. In fact its name is rife with meaning, as Basil comes from the Greek word Basileus, meaning “king”.
From its birthplace in India, the variety “Holy Basil” (also called tulsi) is considered an essential religious symbol and venerated plant, the earthly incarnation of the god Tulsi/Vrinda. It is the holiest of all plants in Hinduism and no Hindu household is considered complete without a tulsi plant growing in its courtyard, often in a special pot or masonry structure. Offerings of basil leaves are required for worship of the god Vishnu and his avatars and its use in Ayurvedic medicine for all manner of prevention and cure is trumped by no other plant.
In ancient Egypt, basil was believed to have been used in embalming and preserving mummies, and has been found in ancient tombs beneath the pyramids. Interestingly enough, it was also thought to ensure safe journey to the afterlife, a belief shared in Ancient Greece, where basil was also associated with poverty and misfortune. On the island of Crete, it was an emblem of the devil, and was paradoxically planted on window ledges to ward away evil. In the modern day Greek Orthodox church, it is sometimes found on alters, and sprigs of it are used to sprinkle holy water. African folklore stated that it helped ease the pain of scorpion stings – perhaps misreading this, a 16th century French doctor believed it cause scorpions to grow in the brain of anyone who smelled or ate it!
Basil is sometimes known as “l’herbe royale” (the royal herb) in French and was believed to have grown on the original cross of Christ (perhaps another reason for it “kingly” name-sake) and in Jewish folklore was thought to lend strength while fasting. It was thought by some Medieval doctors to be poisonous, and by others to cure the venom of the infamous Basilisk monster (also from Harry Potter fame), which could kill by simply gazing at its victims. Today in Portugal, it is considered a symbol of love, given to loved ones in a small decorative pot or manjerico on St. Anthony’s and St. John’s days.
Uses for basil range from Thai to Italian cuisine. This herb traveled along medieval trade routes and eventually found its way to North America, where it is commonly found on many plates and in gardens today. The colorful history of basil is a testament to its remarkable taste and incredible variety. It’s why we are so excited to highlight it in our first virtual tasting! Remember to pick up your tickets today, while supplies last!