For hundreds of years, traders and merchants traveled along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, plying their wares and loading their ships before departing and unloading the same.
Trade boomed, and people around the world were exposed to foods, spices, textiles, and other unique articles never before seen.
The Mediterranean was a proverbial goldmine of goods, which included the aromatic, perennial rosemary plant growing naturally along the coastline. Although native to the shores of the Mediterranean, rosemary (or “dew of the sea”) is now cultivated around the world.
As an herb, its uses are endless. From poultry and lamb, to soups, teas, vegetables, stews, and spreads, it is an essential in every kitchen.
Rosemary Through the Ages
Steeped in history, antiquated tales of rosemary have grown to legendary proportions. Mythology depicts Aphrodite lovingly covered by the naiads in a gown of rosemary and myrtle.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have slept beneath a rosemary bush during the family’s escape to Egypt. Her freshly laundered cloak, spread across the bush to dry, is credited with miraculously changing its delicate blossoms from white to blue.
The rosemary bush was an essential component in the gardens of ancient Rome and Greece, where it was believed to provide protection from evil spirits.
Scholars would wear garlands on their heads or around their necks in hopes of retaining knowledge, and some even placed the herb beneath their pillows before an exam. Brides saw the crowns that were so finely crafted for their wedding ceremonies as a symbol of love and fidelity.
Even royalty succumbed to this belief. Picture Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of Henry VIII, tucking sprigs of rosemary throughout her coif before placing a precious crown of pearls and gemstones atop her head.
Ironically, Henry would soon put her aside for a younger, more beautiful woman, but he would always claim to love her as his dear sister. How nice. The fact that she kept her head may have cemented her belief in the herb’s magical properties.
Ironically, ceremonial uses didn’t end when the bride and groom left the altar to begin their lives as a family. Poet Robert Herrick said it best: “Grow for two ends – it matters not at all. Be’t for my bridall, or my burial.”
As a symbol, rosemary was just as important in the remembrance of a life as it was a reminder of one’s wedding vows. Ancient Egyptians used the herb in embalming rituals. Early Europeans tossed sprigs into the graves of loved ones as a token of remembrance.
Today, Australians and New Zealanders continue the tradition when military service members wear clippings in their lapels, to honor fallen comrades on ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day.
In time, superstition would give way to medicine, as Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides, hailed the herb for its ability to create “warmth” in the body and improve the memory.
Pliny and Galen agreed, as did Nicholas Culpepper in his 1652 publication of the “The English Physician,” wherein he cited, “It helpeth a weak Memory, and quickeneth the senses.”
A year later, he expounded on that claim in the “Pharmacopeia Londoniensis” where he wrote, “The water is an admirable cure-all remedy of all kinds of cold, loss of memory, headache, coma. It receives and preserves natural heat, restores body function and capabilities, even at late age. There are not that many remedies producing that many good effects.”
During the Middle Ages, rosemary was often used as a purifier. Dried herbs were placed in sacks and carried through the streets to ward off the dreaded Black Plague. The herb became so popular during this time that prices soared, and the armful of branches once purchased for a shilling quickly shifted to a mere handful for six.
Nonetheless, caregivers burned the herb in the bedchambers of the sick to cleanse the air. Public buildings kept the incense glowing in an effort to keep workers and patrons healthy.
As recently as WWII, French hospitals were credited with utilizing the benefits of its vapors to kill germs in overcrowded wards. As an added bonus, the incense also repelled unwanted pests, such as mosquitoes and fleas.
Today, we continue to learn of more health benefits attributed to rosemary. Proven to be a great source of vitamins A, B6, C, and folate, as well as the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and potassium, studies regularly produce new findings.
Recent discoveries support the herb’s ability to improve mental health (concentration, exhaustion, depression); respiratory problems (colds, allergies, sore throats); and stomach ailments (indigestion, cramps, and flatulence).
Rich in antioxidants, which are believed to boost the immune system, increase circulation, and fight free radicals, numerous studies are in progress to determine its benefits as a cancer-fighting agent.
Fortunately, we only need to go as far as our own kitchens to reap the benefits.
If you have a green thumb (or even if you don’t), rosemary makes a beautiful addition to any landscape. Unless you’re a seasoned gardener, it is said that nursery-grown plants are best.
But you’ll need a few things before you start – sun, and an area with good drainage. If you’ve got those, you’re in business.
Living in a frost-free area will afford you the pleasure of fresh rosemary year round. Temperatures below 30ºF will require that you bring your plants indoors.
For some of us, it’s easier to keep our plants potted, making the transition from outside to inside a simple task. Just remember, potted plants require more watering on those hot summer days to keep them from drying out.
Once indoors, your plant won’t need scads of attention, but it will still require as much sunlight as possible. Thus, if you don’t have a sunny window, you’re going to be in trouble.
The first question many people ask about herbs and spices is, “Should I use fresh or dried?” Well, the answer to that question never changes: fresh is best. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with using dried herbs though, because there isn’t.
Fresh herbs provide the truest flavor; that is a fact. Nonetheless, people have been drying herbs for thousands of years for good reason – they last longer.
Fresh rosemary can be kept in the refrigerator for a few weeks at most. Trim the bottom of the stalks and submerge them in an inch or two of water, place the jar in the refrigerator, and use within two weeks.
Remember to change the water every few days.
Another option to preserve freshness is freezing the herb after cutting. This simple procedure requires nothing more than rinsing your cuttings in cool water, and placing them in airtight bags.
Before use, manipulate the bag with your fingers or use a rolling pin to loosen the leaves from their stems.
Amazingly, freezing rosemary locks in its flavor, aroma, and even better – its color. Let’s face it, presentation counts!
Dried rosemary lasts far longer than its counterparts, but the longer it’s kept, the weaker it becomes. If that jar on the spice rack has been there longer than six months, roll the herb between your fingers accordingly – any aroma left? If not, toss it.
Speaking of spice racks, is it time for a new one? Check out Foodal’s review of the best models on the market.
As the aroma and flavor weaken, the amount your recipe calls for will increase. There is no absolute shelf life for dried herbs, but longevity has a price.
On another note, it’s important to remember that freshly dried rosemary is stronger and more pungent than it is right off the stem (unless it’s significantly aged). In this circumstance, less is more.
Using Rosemary in Your Recipes
Rosemary’s oil is nestled deep within its needles (actually silver-gray leaves resembling needles), from which we discover the source of its minty aroma.
Drop a few sprigs into a roasting pan for a taste of the Mediterranean, pierce a leg of lamb for a succulent infusion of flavor, or strip a branch of its leaves and use as a skewer for roasting or grilling a medley of vegetables and chicken.
Or…bake it into a cake! Just like our delicious lemon-rosemary bundt cake creation here, topped with goat cheese frosting.
For a simpler baking spree, try these rosemary parmesan crackers for starters.
When flowering, the blooms of the rosemary plant are not only edible, but make a great addition to biscuits, breads, salads, and dressings. The calyx at the base of the flower should be removed before use, and petals may be sprinkled at will. Flower blossoms also serve as an attractive and edible garnish.
Terracotta bread pots garnished with flowering stems are sure to stir up conversation at an informal luncheon or picnic.
Terracotta Bread Pots
Rosemary Herbed Butter
Rosemary herbed butter spread makes a quick, delicious, and attractive addition to any dinner table. Simply soften two sticks of butter, whisk in a bit of minced garlic (to taste), and add some coarsely chopped fresh rosemary. This scrumptious blend can be slathered on bread, corn on the cob, and even grilled steaks or chicken.
When used to complement the main dish, you might want to present your herbal spread in individual butter crocks – not only will this serve to make your guests feel special, it will save you from a constant stream of requests to “Please pass the butter!”
A sprinkle of rosemary will also add zest to a number of different vegetables. The next time you’re in the mood for cauliflower, peas, spinach, squash, zucchini, and especially potatoes, try a dusting of the chopped herb to make a once-ordinary dish exceptional.
In addition to breads, vegetables, and spreads, rosemary also finds a happy home in a number of different main dishes. As a bonus, recent studies have noted that the herb’s antioxidant properties may actually reduce the carcinogenic compounds created when meat is cooked at high temperatures.
According to researchers at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, California and a Japanese study reported in the Journal of Neurochemistry (2007), the phenolic compounds present in the herb (i.e. rosamrinic acid, carnosol, carnosic acid) work to reduce HCAs before they form during the cooking process.
This is great news for grill lovers everywhere!
If grilling is your passion, there are many different marinades and meat rubs available for use with steaks, burgers, and chicken. Rosemary extract was cited as being the most effective form for fighting carcinogens, but it can be rather pricey.
Thus, I’ll stick with an olive oil blend that can be prepared in advance, sealed with a cork, and kept for up to six months in the refrigerator.
Rosemary Herbed Oil
Oil infusions take almost no time at all to prepare, and they serve two purposes. First, they are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Second, they provide you with a base that’s immediately available for use.
Beautifully crafted glass bottles are available everywhere from flea markets to the internet, but it’s what you put in them that draws the eye.
Fill a glass bottle with olive or grapeseed oil (I love the pale green color the grapeseed provides), add rosemary sprigs, and separate the cloves from three or four garlic bulbs before tossing them into the mix. The effect is breathtaking.
And the taste?
Well, the taste speaks for itself.
There are some safety concerns with creating herbed oils so please read this article before embarking on this pursuit. When it doubt, leave the garlic out – it can lead to the potential for botulism if not consumed quickly and stored properly.
Strangely enough, what we often tend to consider a culinary adventure never seems to really be a path into the unknown. People have been treading these same paths for thousands of years. From the manicured gardens in ancient Rome to the herb gardens of modern day cooking icons, rosemary hasn’t missed a beat.
It’s beneficial to our health, pleasing to the palate, and it smells heavenly – not to mention the benefits it can provide for your skin and hair… but that’s a story for another day.
- “The English Physician by Nicholas Culpeper, 1652 – Herbs: Friends of Physicians, Praise of Cooks.” Herbs Friends of Physicians Praise of Cooks. University of Virginia, 2007. Web. 08 Feb. 2015.
- Heinerman, John. Heinerman’s Encyclopedia of Healing Herbs & Spices. West Nyack, NY: Parker Pub., 1995. Print.
- “Rosemary.” University of Maryland Medical Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.