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Ocimum basilicum, the herb of kings and king of herbs, an herb so basic as to be only one letter different from basic. But at the same time, as kings are wont to be, a herb that does not blend into the background, a herb that will be different just for the sake of being different, even having pronounced differences with itself.

Pronounced? You don’t believe? Like herb itself, basil has a choice of two ways to say it. Look in a dictionary: while the supervenient pronunciation rhymes with dazzle, an accepted alternate rhymes with hazel.

Weirdly, I first learned neither of those pronunciations. You see, I had a great-uncle Basil whose name was said like “base’ll” – that is, with a “long” and a voiceless s. So it did not exactly go with hazel. Which is amusing, because his wife’s name was… yes… Hazel. (But his name had always been said that way, even before he met her.)

Anyway, on the basis of my uncle, I assumed that that was the proper pronunciation of basil. When a kid’s TV show I watched had a character named Basil the Beagle, I assumed his name was spelled Bazzle. I mean, wouldn’t you, anyway?

But this herb is not avuncular. I love it, to be sure, and use it in tomato sauces and soups whenever I can (among other things), but I learned an important lesson when I once told my housemate “It’s impossible to use too much basil.” The dude proved me wrong decisively. And allow me to inform you: an excess of basil produces a truly horrible flavour. Just as basil can be (as in Portugal) a token of love or (as in ancient Greece) a symbol of hatred, its effect on your food will vary very much according to the dosage.

This is not to say that basil is tyrannical in a dish. It is not a tyrannos; it is a basileus.

I’ll explain that. Tyrannos, more accurately τύραννος, means ‘king’ and is the term applied to Oedipus in the play Οἰδίπους Τύραννος, most often called Oedipus Rex from the Latin but translated into English as King Oedipus (I’d make that King Piercefoot). But it is also the root of tyrant, which gives you a little sense of what kind of king we mean: an absolute ruler, a dictator, a despot. On the other hand, βασιλεύς, basileus, also means ‘king’ but otherwise means ‘chief, master, patron’, so it’s maybe a little more agreeable. Unless you go too far, take a risk, and it becomes a basilisk: a mythical snake-dragon with a deadly gaze and a name that comes from the same kingly root. So, overall, uh… like a boss.

But basil also has holy overtones. And by that I don’t just mean holy basil, which is a different (but related) herb also called tulsi. I mean assorted saints, especially in the Eastern Orthodox church. You may know that the big church on Red Square in Moscow is Saint Basil’s Cathedral – well, that’s its short, unofficial name. But which Saint Basil is it named after? There were several, about half of them bishops: not quite kings, but men of power and influence. The Saint Basil in honour of whom this magnificent cathedral took its common name (though not until more than a century after its construction) was a holy man who is now buried in it, a man who once rebuked the man who had the cathedral built, Ivan the Terrible (a terrible translation of Иван Грозный – Ivan the Fearsome would better), for not paying attention during church. He is called Василий Блаженный, commonly rendered in English as Basil Fool for Christ. He went around wearing shackles and literally nothing else, destitute by choice, and he had Ivan the Fearsome himself as a pallbearer at his funeral and now is memorialized by a building that epitomizes everything he wasn’t – especially since it’s no longer even a functioning church.

A small further digression must be permitted. Василий is not pronounced “Basil” however you say “Basil”; it is the name normally rendered in English as Vasily or Vassily or Vasiliy or… You know, as in Wassily Kandinsky, whose paintings are as colourful as that cathedral, but with different structure and a different palette. The /b/ of Ancient Greek eased off to a /v/ in modern Russian, and in several other languages – including modern Greek, in which β has also softened to /v/, sort of like how basil’s flavour softens when it has dried.

If you have a kitchen with a standard collection of herbs and spices, you almost certainly have flakes of dried basil. You can shake some into your hand and taste it. Yup! That tastes like basil! As in the stuff you put into spaghetti sauce (along with oregano). It’s vaguely sweet, with reminiscences of chamomile, mint, and anise, and maybe a bit of hay. But do you have access to some of the fresh stuff? Take a leaf and chew it. It’s recognizably the same herb, but the dials have been turned up from 2 to 10, except for the anise dial, which is somewhere between 13 and 20, and there may be a hint or three of your neighbour’s lawn. Its taste suggests that if it were a person, it would be trying to decide whether to kiss you or kill you.

My edition of the Larousse Gastronomique (1960), in translation by Marion Hunter, paints a picture of an erstwhile grand dame: “Basil . . . Plant cultivated in gardens for the sake of its fragrance. . . . Basil was once considered a royal plant; only the sovereign (basileus) could cut it, and even then only with a golden sickle. The plant has now come into common use.”

Oh, but don’t take their word for it (no, seriously, don’t). Throw a naked leaf or three into a sauce. It will beatify the sauce. (Throw in two dozen and it will murder it.) And when you get to the leaf, soft and soggy, it will not resist you like a bay leaf; it will go easily into your mouth, where it will at its last remind you that it was once, and still is, royalty.

And yet it has the common touch, and really always has. Look, here is a recipe, presented to us by Achille Bruni, Professor of the Royal University of Naples, from his Nuova enciclopedia agraria (New agricultural encyclopedia) for “Genoese low-fat lasagne,” which they already had back in 1859 (and if you want to quibble with the spellings, click that link and check it for yourself):

Lasagne di magro alla genovese. — Cuoci in acqua con sale le lasagne, le quali riesciranno più saporite se avrai fatte in casa. Intanto per condirle metti in un mortaio due e tre spicchi d’aglio, foglie di basilico in abbondanzo e alquanta polpa di cacio di Roma, o d’Olanda, o di Sardegna, secondo il gusto, e pesta tutto ben bene; aggiungi dell’olio fino in quantità, e tre o quattro cucchiaiate dell’acqua stessa in cui cuocono le lasagne. Quando queste son cotte, colale e condiscile suolo per suolo col pesto che hai preparato, aggiungendo ancora del formaggio grattato.

Here is a translation (mine, with some help from Google and Wiktionary):

Genoese low-fat lasagna. — Cook the lasagna in water with salt; it will be tastier if you have made it at home. Meanwhile, to season it, put in a mortar two and three cloves of garlic, basil leaves in abundance and some ground cheese from Rome, or Holland, or Sardinia, according to taste, and pound everything well; add fine oil in quantity, and three or four spoonfuls of the water in which the lasagna is cooking. When these are cooked, strain them and season them layer by layer with the pesto you have prepared, adding more grated cheese.

Remember: foglie di basilico in abbondanzo [sic]: basil leaves in abundance. Ma non troppo, sai?

bay leaf

What is up with this leaf. Why even is there bay leaf? It sits in stews and sauces and it’s as easy to eat as a polymer five-dollar bill (this is a Canadian reference; Americans who don’t travel won’t get it, but most other people will understand). Bay leaf is like the quiet, dignified, hard-to-get-your-teeth-into guest at a party. No one seems sure why that person is there. And eventually you discover that the guest has secrets, and also secrets behind those secrets, and is nobility, and kind of famous under another name, actually more than one other name, and played a bigger part than you thought in the enjoyment of the party.

The bay leaf gets its name from its tree, the bay tree, which in turn gets its name from its berries; bay comes from an Old English word meaning ‘berry’ and is not related to the bay that means a convexity of water and concavity of land, or the bay that is a sound hunting dogs make, or the bay that means ‘reddish-brown’, and those aren’t related to each other either. Bay (the tree) originally meaning ‘berry’ is sort of like how deer originally meant any animal (especially any wild animal). If a deer eats a bay leaf, you have a nexus of semantic reduction and shift. (Makes note to self: cook venison in a bay leaf sauce and make a reduction. Uh, while wearing a shift, I guess.)

But most other languages do not call it anything like bay. Many of their names for it trace back to the Latin, which I have been holding back from you. The Linnaean name for the tree that makes this seasoning is Laurus nobilis. Which means ‘noble laurel’. As in the thing you make wreaths of, such as Julius Caesar wore. Which is how I discovered bay leaves and laurel leaves were the same thing.

I grew up reading Asterix comic books, you see. One of them was Asterix and the Laurel Wreath. In it, the chief of their Gaulish tribe makes a boast that he will serve a stew “caesoned with Caesar’s laurel wreath!” (props to Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge for the witty English renditions). This helped me to notice that the container of bay leaves that sat perennially unperturbed in my mother’s spice drawer (an herbal pharmacopeia of dozens of Empress metal tins and McCormick glass jars plus a few Spice Islands glass jars and some flat plastic sachets) bore the French legend (we’re in Canada, remember) “feuilles de laurier.”

Laurier is, as seems guessable, French for laurel; it is also French for bay tree because they’re the same thing. You can see that the Latin Laurus over time cooked into French laurier, and English – because people don’t like having to say two r’s in a row – changed the second into an l. You may know of the English surname Laurel, as in Stan Laurel (who performed with Oliver Hardy). French people also get named after trees, and any Canadian ought to know that one of the great nobility of Canadian history is one such: Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the seventh prime minister. He’s featured on the five-dollar bill. I would like to say that French Canadians refer to five-dollar bills as feuilles de Laurier, but I have no evidence that anyone does. It doesn’t help that the fivers are blue; they might stand a greater chance of it if they were green (but that’s the twenties; in Canada the money is colour-coded).

Sir Wilf is not depicted wearing a laurel wreath, but I have to say, it would suit him. What is it about laurel wreaths? Is it that they indicate a well-seasoned person? In fact, the Romans didn’t start it. They stole it, like nearly damn everything in their mythology (but somehow not their politics or cuisine), from Greece. Laurel wreaths were a symbol of victory starting with the Pythian Games, which were held at Delphi in honour of Apollo.

I’m tempted to say Apollo got his name because his behaviour was appalling, but not really. In this case, however, the association between him and the laurel is that he lusted after a young woman who wanted to be chaste and didn’t want to be chased. When he wouldn’t leave her alone, she pleaded to the river god (Ovid says he was named Peneus, and no, don’t go there), who turned her into a tree. A laurel tree, in specific. And so Apollo, feeling either contrite or perdurably concupiscent, formed a special fondness for the tree and saw to it that the victors at the games would be adorned with leaves from the tree named after the object of his infatuation, whose name was…


Yes. Greek for laurel (or laurus) is Δάφνη, usually rendered as Daphne – or, well, for the tree (not the person), δάφνη dafne. Various dictionaries assure me that laurus and δάφνη are etymologically related, but not one of them has the decency to say how. I can see that /l/and /d/ have the same place of articulation (tip of the tongue), and so do /n/ and /r/ (though that’s a weird flex), and it’s well known that /u/ and /w/ can turn into /f/ over time in the right context. But I’d still like some kind of string of evidence. It is not forthcoming. (Although, OK, if it were fourth-coming it would get no laurels.)

There are no great English poems dedicated to Daphne; as the Oxford Dictionary of First Names explains, “The name was not used in England until the end of the 19th century, when it seems to have been adopted as part of the vogue for flower names at that time” – so it showed up just in time for Daphne du Maurier (1907–1989). Before that you’ll more likely find references to Daphnis, as in Daphnis and Chloe, which is a masculine version of the same; since Daphnis is supposedly the inventor of pastoral poetry, he probably lounged under the branches of his namesake playing his pan pipe and singing to his sheep. The name Laurel also came into vogue at the same time as Daphne, as did the name Laura, which also means “bay tree” but comes by way of Italian (in particular it was the name of the girlfriend of Petrarch). Laurence was around already, but may or may not be related (yeah, it probably is, but you know how weird names can be; if Laurel can be from the same source as Daphne, then Laurence can also not be from the same source as Laurel).

None of this answers why people put laurel leaves – bay leaves – in stews and sauces. To know that, go get a bay leaf. If you can find a fresh one, so much the better, but at the very least, don’t do what I did and store them in the same jar as another bit of desiccated cortex: cinnamon bark. I now have cinnamon-flavoured bay leaves. Which is great, but I’ve bought some new ones for all those times I might need bay leaves that don’t taste like cinnamon.

Have you inferred that I don’t use bay leaves too often? It’s true. They’re a nuisance. But they do have a nice flavour! You won’t know what it is by smelling them. You won’t know what it is by licking them. You need to bite one with your incisors, repeatedly. Then you will get a flavour that is in the range between oregano and basil, with hints of mint and strong notes of “oh, that’s what that is!” You can also buy powdered bay leaf. You will get a stronger taste sensation from it, but then your mouth will want to know exactly why you put that dry powder into it, sir or ma’am, and will become a little bitter about it too.

Bay leaves have long been used in cooking. They are a key ingredient of the bouquet garni, the compulsory French seasoning. They are also found in various pickling recipes, as well as recipes for assorted other savouries that involve simmering a liquid for long enough to get the flavour out of the damn things. Here is a recipe from the sixteenth-century court cookbook of the Prince of Transylvania, yes actually, in translation by Bence Kovacs, edited by Glenn Gorsuch:

Italian sardine.

Cook the sardine like this. Wash it and add salt to the fish like I told you among the other fish. Prepare its sauce like this. Wash the salt from fish, put it in a pot, pour vinegar and wine onto it and add some bay laurel.

Laurel doesn’t grow in Transylvania, so have someone bring it from Turkey or Italy. When you’re about to cook the fish, add laurel. This is not for one day. Cook it, and once cooked, put it into a pot where you can take it out with a spoon. Once you’re ready to slice it and serve it, don’t take out the water, leave it there, and don’t cook it like you cook beef or pork, this doesn’t need that much time. It should be coagulated.

Remember: this is not for one day. Nobility takes time! But not as much as beef or pork. Also, it has to be brought from Turkey or Italy. (Just by the way, though, Hungarian for “laurel” or “bay leaf” is babér. And, for the curious, Finnish is laakeri, Basque is erramu, Polish is wawrzyn, Irish is labhrais, German is Lorbeer, Turkish is defne… This silent guest goes by many names in many places.)

Or you can skip trying to get the flavour from the laurel and cut straight to the ennoblement. Here’s an ancient recipe (from Ancient Cookery A.D. 1381, published as the second part of a volume with The Forme of Cury, with some typographical misrendering):


Tak hoggys fet other pyggys other erys other partrichys other chiconys and do hem togedere and serh hem in a pot and do hem in flowre of canel and clowys other or grounde do thereto vineger and tak and do the broth in a clene vessel of al thys and tak the Flesch and kerf yt in smal morselys and do yt therein tak powder of galyngale and cast above and lat yt kels tak bronches of the lorer tre and styk over it and kep yt al so longe as thou wilt and serve yt forth.

That, of course, means this:


Take hog’s feet or pig’s or ears or partridge’s or chicken’s [so, um, like the feet or ears of hogs or piglets, or the feet of partridges or chickens, I guess, but probably not the ears of partridges or chickens] and do them together and simmer them in a pot and do them in powdered or ground cinnamon or cloves; add vinegar and take and make the broth in a clean vessel of all this and take the flesh and carve it in small morsels and put it in; take powder of galingale and sprinkle it over and let it cool; take branches of the laurel tree and stick them over it and keep it as long as you want and serve it forth.

And that, my friends, is how you make noble food from a sow’s ear: tak bronches of the lorer tre and styk over it and kep yt al so longe as thou wilt. Which sounds like Apollo’s permanent wood.

But that does preclude one of the secret pleasures of a cook: licking off the leaf after fishing it out of the sauce. Why serve it to unappreciative diners? Let your mysterious noble guest stay in your kitchen with you. Or, if you are done making magnificent cuisine, you may take the leaves and put them in your pillowcase (bought at The Bay)… and rest on your laurels.


Thymus vulgaris, called vulgaris not because crude but because common – as common as the wordplays of which it is the patron and protector herb. By extension it is the patron herb of the names of bistros and catering companies: About Thyme, Thyme to Dine, Thyme 4 Pasta, Meal Thyme, Wild Thymes, Thyme to Indulge, Nosh Thyme… also an enormous chain of maternity shops. Continue reading


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! Continue reading


Salvia officinalis: kitchen sage. One of many kinds of sage (many kinds). A plant of purple whorl flowers and soft, textured, furry, spear-shaped leaves. An herb to help make you healthy and wise (wealthy is at your discretion). The ancients noted it for its many and varied medicinal effects and so named it from salvus, ‘whole, healthy’. Continue reading


Petroselinum crispum, an herb both savoury and ornamental, in some cuisines seen fit to be a principal ingredient, as in tabbouleh; in some to be a key seasoning, as in its role as a component of a bouquet garni and as one of the four axiomatic herbs of English folk-song; and in some to be a garnish appended to a plate of steak and tomato and returned to the kitchen most often uneaten, therefrom perhaps to be recirculated. Continue reading