And how to cook with them.
Since the beginning of time humans have added plants, spices and aroma to their food whether to preserve or to flavour. We continue to this day.
In Italy, herbs often feature as an ingredient rather than seasoning - what would a caprese be without basil? Or a salsa verde without parsley?
Many different types of piante aromatiche are grown in kitchen gardens or pots on sunny terraces within reach of the kitchen but these top 5 herbs stand out as the most loved (and used) in Italian cooking.
Walk past an Italian restaurant and what is that gorgeous smell? No doubt, garlic and oregano.
But did you know that restaurants don’t typically use garlic and oregano in Italy? Perché? Because oregano, as adored as it is, belongs only in particular dishes, just like garlic.
Don’t think Italians add garlic to everything, a misconception often found out of Europe, it is chosen for a certain flavour as much as cardamon would be for a certain curry - specific herbs add specific flavours.
Let’s look at oregano.
This is a hardy plant, growing wild in arid, rocky Mediterranean climates like southern Italy. Its name derives from ancient Greek: oros - mountain and ganos - splendour.
In Italy oregano is prized for its perfect harmony with tomato.
Of a fruity but sharp aroma, oregano is lovely cooked fresh but is best dried in bunches, stored in paper bags and crushed directly into your cooking to harness its most intense flavour. In Italy, you’d find it sold as such, in markets and supermarkets next to the vegetables. In paper bags is also the best way to store oregano.
TOP TIP: Oregano tolerates slow cooking but not high temperatures where it will become bitter unless you combine it with tomato.
Any tomato dish loves a sprinkle of oregano, most commonly found on pizza, even if a basil leaf is often added on top for decoration. Bruschette are a classic for both fresh and dried oregano with a sprinkle onto the toppings or crushed dry and cooked in the tomato sauce.
A beautiful recipe belonging to Italy’s ‘cucina povera’ uses stale bread for a summer salad. Panzanella goes by many names with endless regional variants, here’s the Tuscan version:
400g Pane casareccio o Toscano (raffermo)/Dried Tuscan bread/sourdough or ciabatta
1 Red Onion
450g Italian baby tomatoes or any that pack a punch of flavour
Basil leaves ripped up
60ml White Wine vinegar
Pinch of salt
Extra virgin Olive Oil
1.Cut the bread into cubes or rip it apart. Add 270ml of water and let it rest for 30-40 minutes until soft.
2. In the mean time, slice the onion thinly, add it to 60ml of water and 60ml of white wine vinegar and let it rest for 15 minutes. Drain and keep the onion to one side. In a separate bowl, peel and chop up the cucumber as well as the tomatoes, add the basil leaves and oregano.
3. Squeeze the water from the bread and mix all the ingredients together gently with your hands.
4. Dress with olive oil, salt, pepper and a drop of vinegar.
5. Let the panzanella sit covered in the fridge for 30 minutes before serving.
TOP TIP: If you are using Tuscan bread, remember their bread is not salted so adjust accordingly. Also served beautifully with a burrata.
Flat-leaf parsley is a go-to in Italian kitchens. Albeit very pretty, the curly variety is never used for cooking, only to garnish. Parsley is protagonist in so many dishes here - particularly prized with fish and seafood. Think pepata di cozze (mussels), spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) and insalata di mare (seafood salad). But also think spaghetti alla puttanesca and Tuscan salsa verde, easy to grow and glorious picked fresh - chop roughly and throw in just before serving to maintain the best flavour.
TOP TIP: Freeze chopped parsley and use straight from the freezer as you need it.
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
320g Spaghetti (number 12 De Cecco or Barilla Number 5)
800g Tinned peeled Italian tomatoes
25g Acciughe sott'olio (Anchovies in olive oil)
1 Bunch of flat leaf parsley
100 g Olive di Gaeta/small brown olives
3 Cloves of garlic
2 Dried chillies
30g Extra virgin Olive Oil
Salt to taste
1. Run the capers under water if they’re salted and chop up. Squish the olives using the side of your knife and roughly chop the parsley.
2. Add whole peeled garlic cloves to the olive oil in a large, flat pan along with the chopped chillies, capers and anchovies. Fry gently until the anchovies begin to dissolve then add the tinned tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon.
3. Add the spaghetti to a pot of boiling water and salt with coarse sea salt. While cooking, stir the sauce on a medium heat.
4. Just before the spaghetti are cooked al-dente, remove the garlic cloves from the sauce, add the olives and parsley and place the drained pasta into the sauce, mixing for 30 seconds so the flavours combine. Serve nice and hot.
Spaghetti alle vongole
320g Spaghetti (Barilla number 7)
1kg Fresh clams (Veraci preferably)
1 Clove of garlic
1 Bunch of flat leaf Parsley
Extra virgin olive oil .
A pinch of salt
Coarse sea salt
1. Wash the clams under cold water eliminating any broken shells. Add coarse salt to a bowl and let them sit in cold water for 2-3 hours in order for all sand to be removed.
2. Gently sauté the garlic in olive oil in a large, flat pan and add the clams to it, increasing the heat and putting a lid on. Give them a shake every now and then.
3. When all of the clams have opened, immediately switch off the heat and leave the lid on, otherwise they will overcook.
4. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and cook the spaghetti for half the time suggested on the box.
5. Drain the clams, remove the garlic and pour all the juice back into the same pan with an extra ladle of pasta water.
6. Add the strained spaghetti to the pan and continue cooking. Season with salt (if needed) and pepper.
7. Keep adding more pasta water if necessary until the spaghetti are cooked. Throw in the clams with your finely-chopped parsley and another glug of olive oil - pronti in tavola!
TOP TIPS: White wine can be used to sfumare the clams at step 2 or a chopped up chilli can be added if you like a kick. It's a good idea to shell some of the clams so your pasta doesn't become cold. Clams are naturally salty thus salt is rarely added to the sauce.
In Italy's top 5 herbs, sage features as a farmhouse favourite. It's often planted in the corner of a garden and left to do its thing. We have an enormous bush beside our kitchen door in Italy which just keeps growing! Salvia derives from Latin “salvis” meaning to save or to cure. The ancient Romans used sage leaves as an antidote for snake bites, to whiten teeth and to dye their hair! Sage is used in so many recipes in Italy, spiedo (slow roasted chunks of meat on a spit, typically from northern Italy, sage is placed between layers of lard, pork, chicken and tiny birds, yes tiny birds) or as a flavourful condiment to canederli in butter. Here are two authentic recipes...
Salvia Fritta/Fried Sage Leaves
4 Spoons of plain flour
1 Pinch of salt
50ml of Light beer
100ml of water
30 Big Sage leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
1. Mix the flour with salt, water and beer in a bowl. Add the liquids slowly and keep mixing to avoid lumps. Let the batter rest in the fridge for half an hour.
2. Wash the sage leaves and dry them gently leaving a long stem.
3. Heat 'two fingers' of olive oil in a deep pan, dip the sage in the batter and drain it slightly.
4. When the oil is hot, lay the sage leaves in the oil leaving space between them and fry on each side until crispy and golden.
5. Drain the fired leaves on kitchen paper towel, sprinkle with salt and serve hot!
Gnocchi al Burro e Salvia/Gnocchi with Butter and Sage
500g potato gnocchi
12 sage leaves
pinch of salt
Coarse Sea Salt
1. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and salt the water with coarse sea salt.
2. Gently melt the butter in a pan with the sage leaves on a low heat while your gnocchi are cooking. They can brown slightly, but only slightly.
3. Add the gnocchi to the water and when all of the gnocchi have bobbed up to the surface, drain them and add to the butter mixture. Mix gently and plate up!
TOP TIP: These can be enjoyed with grated Parmesan or Grana Padano on top or for an extra special taste combination, grate ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta) over the gnocchi and tuck in!
Ah il basilico - profumo d'estate - scent of summer.
This is a delicate plant originally from India and does not like the cold or wind. Potted on a sunny windowsill or terrace, you can grow basil easily in a green house; it does flourish in Italian vegetable gardens but must be harvested before autumn. Believe it or not, there are hundreds of variants - purple, long-leafed, rippled and loved as much in Asian cooking as adopted in Italian kitchens. Leaves picked and placed between tomato and mozzarella di buffala or burrata make one of the most classic of Italian summer dishes. We all know and love pesto in parmigiana or Tuscan bruschetta but probably the most epic of basil recipes has to be pesto genovese. 'Pesto' comes from 'pestare' - to grind or pestle into a pulp. It's Liguria's pride and joy recipe, the land of le Cinque Terre, and they are very precious about it, as much as Romans are about la carbonara. Pesto must traditionally be made in a marble mortar with an olive-wood pestle using only basilico genovese DOP (from the region) which has small, scented leaves. Here's the Pesto Genovese Consorzio recipe:
50 g of Genovese DOP Basil (about 60/70 leaves)
½ Cup of extra virgin olive oil
70 g (½ cup) of Parmigiano Reggiano or aged Grana Padano
30 g (2 tablespoons) of Pecorino Fiore Sardo
2 peeled garlic cloves
15 g (1 tablespoon) of pine nuts
4/5 Grains of coarse salt
1. Wash the pesto leaves and dry thoroughly.
2. Using a marble mortar and wooden pestle made from olive-tree wood, mash the garlic with salt and olive oil into a paste and begin to add the pine nuts.
3. When you have a rough paste, add the leaves and cheese and drizzle with olive oil while gently grinding together. Do not rush things otherwise your basil will oxidise and discolour.
4. Once all ingredients are combined, immediately mix with more olive oil and store in a jar in the fridge.
TOP TIPS: Look, you can use a kitchen blender ok? But the blades cut the basil instead of crushing it so it will turn brown. In order to avoid this, some say freeze the blades and keep the pesto as cold as possible, others use lemon juice.
Pesto is freezable although preferably without the cheese.
Garlic is optional but the original taste will change.
Our last herb is so Italian, we'd be lost without it at Mangia Mangia!
Rosemary grows wild along the roads in coastal Europe as a low, creeping shrub. I love to use the lilac-coloured flowers scattered onto lemon cakes or on a tagliere but there's one aspect of Italian baking which imbues the essence of rosemary at her most fragrant - la focaccia. While rosemary is found chopped onto a pizza, sprinkled onto roasts and potatoes or added to grilled meat marinades, the focaccia seems a great dish with focaccia as the main attraction. Here's our Mangia Mangia recipe which you can have a crack at or simply order for delivery! Our recipe is a traditional one from Puglia where focaccia barese (from Bari) uses potato to soften and moisten the dough. We always start baking early on market day, bringing freshly-baked focaccia to our local markets still warm. An almost medicinal perfume floats through the morning air with a promise of something delectable for lunch.
Focaccia Rosmarino/Rosemary Focaccia
200g of Plain Flour
130g of Strong Bread Flour
1 Sachet of Quick Yeast (7g)
3g of Slow Yeast
140g of finely mashed potatoes (we love Pipe Place Potatoes fresh from the farm)
A Pinch of Salt
A glug of Extra-Virgin olive oil
200ml warm water
Crushed Sea Salt
A Bunch of freshly-picked rosemary chopped finely
1. After mashing the boiled potatoes, add the yeasts to a large bowl with the sugar and warm water. Wait for a few minutes until the yeast begins to activate and bubble.
2. Add the rest of the ingredients (excluding the last two) and mix until combined.
3. No need to knead! Cover the bowl with clingwrap or a damp cloth and leave in a warm spot for 30 minutes until risen.
4. Punch down the dough and fold it in from the sides. Cover again to prove for another 30 minutes until risen. It does not need to double.
5. Add a glug of olive oil to a deep 30x20 metal baking tray in which the dough is placed pressing down gently into the corners.
6. Cover again for the dough to prove for a third time.
7. Warm the oven to 230°C and poke holes with your fingers, don't worry if it drops in height. Pour another glug of olive oil over the focaccia and scatter the course salt and abundant amounts of chopped rosemary.
8. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 15 minutes until nice and golden. Enjoy warm.
We'd love to hear your favourite recipes with these top 5 herbs! Drop a message below - happy cooking!