An herb of distinction and great flavour, long known as Rosmarinus officinalis, but now – following on the discovery of an ancient family connection – Salvia rosmarinus. Yes, rosemary is a sage, too. But a sage with a difference!

Rosemary was first known to me as one of my babysitters, so from early childhood I have known it as a name for a friendly, bright-cheeked, hardy, organized, fresh, likeable person. I have yet to have reason to change my image of the name, and I have met many Rosemarys since. Fans of horror movies may think differently, of course.

But there is Rosemary and there is rosemary. While Rosemary transparently has rose, the angora cat of flowers, and Mary, the rose of Biblical ladies, and just incidentally has a whiff of its eponymous herb, the lower-case rosemary drags you straight into the kitchen and the forest; it is royalty among herbs, and just incidentally nods at its namesake ladies. But as a rose has its thorns, and Mary of the manger is also maris stella, the star of the sea, rosemary has its unexpected sides, both heavenly and lost in the mist.

A branch of rosemary looks like a branch of pine, but with style: smart stripes down the middle. Take a needle – a leaf, all the cookery manuals assure us, but I find that a bit persnickety for something so stabby – and bite it and chew it. Suddenly you see (I mean taste and smell) the family resemblance to sage. The classic alpine scent of rosemary gains tastes of eucalyptus and other sage things and, um, soap. Very expensive soap. You are in a spa, in the dense scented mists of a steam room, and you are being beaten by evergreen branches that just happen to be in your mouth.

And unlike sage, rosemary is hardy: even when dry, the needles retain much of the flavour (and gain even more of the stab). It remembers how it was in its salad days. Smell is memory, and rosemary has plenty of it. Remember Ophelia, in Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray, love, remember.”

(Pray, Love, Remember. Wasn’t that a book and then a movie? I skipped it for Eat, Drink, Sleep.)

But remember what? Where are memories? Où sont les neiges d’antan? Where are the snows of yesteryear? Gone like the mists of the sea…

Which, by the way. If you look at the name of this herb in other languages, you see a pattern: Spanish romero, French romarin, German Rosmarin, Italian rosmarino. (The Portuguese alecrim stands out; it comes from the Arabic name اَلإِكْلِيل‎ [al-ʾiklīl], which in turn comes from a word for ‘garland’, which gets us from Rosemary to Judy, but that’s another movie.) The Latin rosmarinus that those are all cooked down from does not come from rosa ‘rose’ plus Maria. It comes from ros marinus, where marinus means ‘marine’ (which is to say, ‘sea’) and ros means ‘dew’.

So, yes, sea-dew, or sea-mist, I suppose. The fresh dew of the morning just seems to show up, and so does this – but in reality it descends from Heaven. From a rose may come eroticism, but from ros comes a rhotacism: the turns to and we get the verb rorare, which means ‘behave like dew’, as in the Advent liturgical chant: “Rorate coeli desuper et nubes pluant justum.” That can be translated (as Wikipedia offers) “Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just”; however, Anglicans know it as “Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.” Meanwhile, cooks know it as a righteous and heavenly seasoning for any season.

But why is this plant “sea mist”? It has had many uses, but it’s not especially salty and is as likely seen in arid environments as by the humid shore – in fact, it does not like being too wet. Ancient Egyptians used it for burial, and there’s little that’s as dry as a mummy.

Dioscorides, a Greek physician in the Roman army, wrote a book in AD 70 called De materia medica that mentions the herb:

Libanotis the Romans call rosmarinus and those who plait wreaths for the head use it. The shoots are slender, around which are small leaves – thick, somewhat long, thin, white on the inside, but green on the outside, with a strong scent. It is warming and cures jaundice. It is boiled in water and given to drink before exercises, and then he who exercises bathes and is drenched with wine. It is also mixed with remedies for the removal of fatigue, and in gleucinum ointments. (translation by T.A. Osbaldeston and R.P.A. Wood)

“Bathes and is drenched with wine…” If this isn’t a recipe, I think I might like to try it. (If it is a recipe, I already have tried it, and it is good.) But while sweat is salty, it’s not sea dew either.

So… ship to shore, what can you do help us see how it is sea dew? Alas, it is gone like the snows of yesteryear; no one seems to remember, which is all the more ironic, since rosemary is indeed long associated with memory, not just symbolically but medicinally: boil it and inhale the fumes through your nose, and you will regain vigour of your brain and it will all start coming back to you. Oh, yes, and you are to boil it in wine. Always wine. I think Chianti or a nice rich Malbec will do. Merlot will be too much the silent servant; Shiraz will talk over it; and if you use Pinot Noir a nasty fight might ensue, each raking at the other with stilettos.

You can always cook with rosemary, of course, but older recipes that use it are not so easy to find – it was for a long time used mainly for health, garlands, and such like. But here is one for salad from our old friend The Forme of Cury:

Take persel, sawge, garlec, chibolles, oynouns, leek, borage, myntes, porrectes, fenel and ton tressis, rew, rosemarye, purslarye, laue and waische hem clene, pike hem, pluk hem small wiþ þyn honde and myng hem wel with rawe oile. lay on vynegur and salt, and serue it forth.

You can probably make that out, but just in case:

Take parsley, sage, garlic, green onions, onions, leeks, borage, mint, scallions, fennel, and cress, rue, rosemary, purslane, lave and wash them clean, pick them, pluck them small with your hand and mix them well with raw oil. Lay on vinegar and salt, and serve it forth.

Are… you supposed to eat that? Raw? And, you know, talk to other people after? Well, I guess if you had all been bathing in wine, it wouldn’t be so bad. But I would certainly remember it.

And I would remember this, too, from A Proper New Booke of Cookery (well, it was new in 1575):

To make a dishefull of Snow.

Take a pottel of sweete thick creame and the white of viij. egges, and beate them altogether with a spone, then put them in your creame, and a saucer full of rose water, and a dishe full of suger withall, then take a stycke and make it cleane, and then cutte it in the ende foure square, and therewith beat all the aforesaide things together, and ever as ut riseth, take it of, and put it into a Collander, this done, take an apple and set it in the middes of it, and a thicke bush of Rosemarye, and set it in the middes if the platter, then cast your snowe upon the Rosemarye, and fyll your platter therwith. And if you have wafers, cast some in withall, & thus serve them forth.

(I don’t need to translate that, I think, except that “viij. egges” means eight eggs.)

And there at last you have them: the snows of yesteryear, with the sea mist at their heart.

6 responses to “rosemary

  1. Rosemary, a wonderful natural cure for many things. Dear wife uses daily. Make the blood flow better. Thank you for sharing your amazing words and thoughts.

  2. I will to try boiling rosemary in wine…the right wine of course. My memory can use any boost it can get! Great post!

  3. I’m enjoying this mini series. One phrase caught my eye, and I’m curious to know how the rose is “the angora cat of flowers” .

  4. Pingback: lachanopolist | Sesquiotica

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