Herbs of Greece
Greek cuisine’s flavors and aromas are largely due to herbs that season, scent, and garnish the gamut of dishes without adding a single calorie or gram of fat. In addition to their nutritional value, herbs have healing properties exalted by Hippocrates, the Olympian gods, and especially our grandmothers. Indeed, some believe that herbs harbor the secrets of love, courage, and success.
The ancient Greeks claimed thyme (thymari) grew from one of Helen of Troy’s tears, which is why warriors drew strength and courage for battle from it. They also used it in the baths, burned it as incense in temples, and greatly admired its healing properties. Today we know thyme is a powerful anti-bacterial and expectorant which is why it’s still used to ease respiratory ailments, colds, and asthma. It is a diuretic, aids digestion, and has a host of other properties: stimulating the appetite, combating insomnia, and repelling insects.
Thyme’s intense fragrance and flavor-slightly spicy with a minty note-are basic characteristics of the Greek and Mediterranean cuisines. It’s widely used for seasoning meat, fish, rice, pasta, legumes, stuffed vegetables, sauces, and cheeses. It retains its flavor during lengthy cooking and blends gradually with other flavors. It pairs well with garlic, onion, basil, bay, lavender, and parsley, and adds depth to red wine. Available fresh year-round, it preserves all its characteristics when dried, making it a very versatile herb. Thyme flowers in early spring and its pretty white, pink, or purple blossoms attract bees that transform its nectar into delicious honey.
Oregano (rigani) abounds in Greece and is one of the most widely-available herbs. By some accounts, its name means “mountain’s shimmer” and, indeed, wild oregano flourishes in the mountains. Since antiquity, it has been associated with happiness and love. It is said that Aphrodite planted it to make people happier, which is why she gave it such a wonderful fragrance. The ancient Greeks wove oregano into wreaths for newlyweds, but also planted it around cemeteries to ensure a happy life in the other world. In medieval times, it was believed to protect against the evil eye and bad spirits. The plant has small, soft, and sometimes spotted green leaves and white or rose-colored blossoms in clusters. Oregano has anti-inflammatory, anti oxidant, and antiseptic properties and is used to treat respiratory and stomach ailments. It is also considered effective for easing asthma and toothache, and recommended as a tisane for a sound sleep. In the kitchen it is used both fresh and dried. Its intense, slightly bitter flavor pairs well with salads, sauces, meat, pasta, and rice.
Sage’s Latin name, Salvia, derives from the verb salvare or save. It was sacred to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who treated it as a cure-all. In ancient Greece it was used to heal wounds and treat snake bites. Women greeted men returning from battle with a sage tisane to bolster their reproductive abilities. Its spread throughout the Mediterranean is attributed to merchants who planted it wherever they traveled. Sage (faskomilo) is related to mint, oregano, and thyme. It is used both fresh and dried as a flavoring in broths, soups, meat, and fish. It pairs very well with sausages and pork and can also be consumed as a hot or cold beverage with sugar, lemon, or honey.
From the same family as oregano, marjoram (matzourana) has a milder taste and less intense scent. It’s found throughout the Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. In Greece, it’s more readily available dried than fresh even though it is more beneficial if consumed fresh. The white or purple blossoms and leaves, which have a delicate piney scent, are used. In the kitchen, marjoram is a good seasoning for all dishes except sweets. It’s wonderful on vegetables and a key ingredient in tomato sauce. Like thyme, marjoram has a strong scent and can be used in a rub for meats and fish before cooking. Its flavor pairs well with other herbs like basil.
Basil comes from India where it symbolizes the god Vishnu and is believed to have been brought to the Mediterranean by Alexander the Great. The Greeks called it vasilikos or royal, because kings used it in their lotions, baths, and medicines. According to one tradition, Emperor Constantine’s mother, Saint Helen, discovered the Holy Cross in a basil field after being drawn there by the herb’s fragrance. Mediterranean basil has broad, bright green leaves and is known by the botanical name Ocimum basilicum and is one of over 40 basil varieties, including the sacred purple-leafed basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum, called tulsi in India where its clove-like taste has made it a basic ingredient of curry. Basil is most commonly used fresh, its chopped leaves added to completed dishes rather than during cooking. It pairs well with salads, tomatoes, soft cheeses, vegetable soups, and sauces like Italy’s pesto. Potted basil plants are ubiquitous in Greece. They decorate window sills, balconies, and kitchens not just for their culinary use but as a symbol of hospitality and to protect against evil spirits as well as mosquitoes. On September 14, the Orthodox feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, churches give parishioners sprigs of basil. In some parts of Greece, custom dictates that a bunch of basil is tied around a wooden cross at Christmas. Basil is also linked to love. According to Cretan tradition, young women gave their beaux a sprig of basil to place behind their ears.
Dittany (Origanum dictamus) is endemic to Crete’s mountains and gorges and is considered one of the most valuable medicinal plants. Known to the Mycenaeans, dittany was prescribed by Hippocrates for stomach ailments, rheumatism, arthritis, and menstrual problems as well as for healing wounds and as a tonic. According to mythology, when Aeneas was struck by an arrow that was too deeply burrowed in his flesh to be removed, his mother, Aphrodite, healed the wound with dittany and removed the arrow. In Cretan dialect, dittany is called erontas, a corruption of eros or love, as it is attributed with aphrodisiac properties. Its more common Greek name is diktamo, after Mount Diktys where it grows. It was Cretan tradition for youths to scale the mountain’s dangerous slopes to pick the herb with the greyish green fuzz on its leaves and the white or purple blossoms to offer it to a girl as proof of their love. Dittany is consumed as a tisane, often sweetened with honey or sugar. It’s also added to spirits or liqueurs.
In ancient Greece, parsley (maidanos) was synonymous with joy, celebration, birth, and resurrection, which is why it was placed on graves. In The Odyssey, the nymph Calypso used the herb’s aphrodisiac powers to seduce Odysseus and keep him from leaving her for several years. Parsley’s botanical name Petroselinum sativum is rooted in the Greek for rock (petra) because it grows in rocky soil. The broad-leafed variety is used in Greek cooking because of its milder taste. It’s used as a garnish and seasoning in meat and chicken dishes as well as fish, vegetables, soups, and pasta.
Fennel (marathos) is member of the same plant family as carrots, celery, parsley, and coriander and is known by the botanical name Foeniculum vulgare. It grows wild in the Greek countryside and by some accounts may have inspired the name of Marathon, site of the 490 B.C. battle against the Persians—a fact that may explain why it’s also considered a symbol of success and victory. The whole fennel plant is edible, from the white or pale green bulb to the shoots and leaves. Even fennel seeds are consumed as a spice. With a fragrance and flavor that is a cross between ginger and anise, it is used for crunch and freshness in salad, sauces, and breads. Fennel also pairs perfectly with fish, cheese, and potatoes. It is used in ouzo as well as in a variation of tzatziki instead of cucumber.
Dill or Anethum graveolens is an annual that withstands cold weather and belongs to the same plant family as parsley. Its thread-like leaves have a mild flavor reminiscent of anise or lemon. Dill (anithos) is used for pickling, in vinaigrette dressings and salads, with white beans, lamb, or chicken, and in egg-lemon sauce.
This herb with the strong, fresh, sweet and spicy fragrance is used both fresh and dried to flavor salads, soups, and sauces, as well as meats, legumes, and desserts. In addition to its culinary uses, mint (menta) has many therapeutic properties as it aids digestion, freshens the breath, relieves cold and flu symptoms, and is a relaxant. In mythology, Minthe was a pretty nymph and lover of Hades, god of the underworld. When Persephone learned of their liaison, she turned Minthe into a plant. Hades was unable to break the spell so instead, he gave her the sweet fragrance emitted by rubbing the plant’s leaves together.
Greek mountain tea (tsai tou vounou) is not a tea but a tisane made from the leaves and blossoms of the ironwort that grows at altitudes over 1,000 meters. For years, it was the traditional drink of shepherds, who prepared it while grazing their herds. Ironwort was used by the ancient Greeks to treat wounds inflicted by iron weapons, hence its name. Young warriors also drank it before going into battle in hopes of bolstering their strength. Greek mountain tea is widely used in Greece. It is consumed mainly in the winter for its Vitamin C, and is also taken for the common cold and respiratory ailments. It is also recommended as a diuretic, digestive, anti oxidant, and recently for helping prevent osteoporosis. It tastes sweet, like chamomile, and is usually taken with other herbs and sweetened with honey and lemon. Nearly 50 varieties of ironwort have been recorded in Greece. One, S. raeseri is cultivated on Mount Parnassus but all the others grow wild like the particularly coarse S. athoa found on the Athos peninsula, Mount Helmos, and Mount Taygetos in the Peloponnese and S. scardica found on Mount Olympus. The most sought-after variety is the Cretan S. syriaca, known locally as malotira. The name dates from Venetian rule and is a composite of male (bad, ill) and tiare (pull, remove), reflecting the herb’s beneficial properties.
Dried or fresh?
Most professional chefs recommend using fresh herbs because their flavor and fragrance is milder. Home cooks, however, usually prefer dried herbs, which are equally enjoyable, but can be stored longer and are easier to find in shops. Fresh herbs are ideal for raw foods such as salads or minced and sprinkled over cooked dishes. When used during cooking, fresh herbs are best added to the pot just before the food is done to preserve as much of their flavor as possible. Dried herbs are excellent for use in soups, stews, and slow-cooked dishes as their flavor is gradually released in hot liquids. Dried herbs can easily be substituted for fresh in most recipes as dehydration intensifies their flavor. As a rule, one teaspoon of a dried herb is equal to a tablespoon of the same fresh herb.
Spearmint (dyosmos) is similar in flavor to mint, only milder. Menta spicata is a short shrub that grows in wet, shady areas. Its several therapeutic properties include aiding digestion and relieving burns; in the kitchen it’s used in soups, main dishes, vegetables, stews, and with snails.
Cumin (kymino) came to Greece from Syria and Egypt. Its pink and white blossoms form umbels. The seeds are used as a spice in meat dishes and stews like stifado.
One variance of rosemary’s common Greek name, dendrolivano, is diosmarini, a corruption of its botanical name Rosmarinus officinalis, which is rooted in the ancients’ belief that the only moisture it needed was the view of the sea, or ros marinus. This woody shrub’s greyish-green leaves are needle-shaped and it produces purple-blue blossoms. It is used as seasoning for fish, meat, salads, and sauces, imparting a robust flavor combining pine, nutmeg, and lavender. Its branches are sometimes used as skewers for grilled meats with delicious results.