All herbs and spices have medicinal properties, which is why they aren’t used in hospital kitchens — thus accounting for the bland food patients always complain about.
A delightful and apparently harmless herb such as mint could have adverse effects on young children or anyone with an allergy to menthol.
Most other herbs and spices have similar positive and negative aspects and doctors solve that problem by banning condiments in hospital kitchens.
But at home we should be regular consumers of cooking herbs because they always have more pros and cons for those who are in general good health.
Rosemary oil can kill various kinds of bacteria, but it can also be toxic for humans if taken in large doses. Never use the oil internally unless supervised by a doctor or a qualified medical herbalist.
The herb was used for centuries as a symbol of remembrance, especially at weddings, funerals and war commemorations. In Act IV of Hamlet, Ophelia says: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.” In Australia a sprig is worn for remembrance on Anzac Day.
Rosemary, an evergreen perennial shrub of the mint family, is native to the Mediterranean where it grows in abundance on dry hillsides. The name means ‘dew of the sea’ and the most aromatic rosemary plants flourish in sunny places near the sea. That means Majorcan rosemary is among Europe’s best because it gets plenty of sun and is never far from the shore.
All major European languages take their word from the Latin. That gives us romero (Spanish), romarin (French), rosmarin (German), rosemaninho (Portuguese) and romerino (Italian). The Cataláns call it romaní and in Galicia it is known as romeo.
Pots of rosemary are available at the Mercat d’Olivar and the Santa Catalina market as well as the supermarkets of El Corte Inglés. Prices range from less than €2 for a smallish one to €7 for tall bushy ones.
Bear in mind that rosemary is used to arid conditions so it doesn’t need watering every day, not even at the height of a Majorcan summer. Once the plant is well established, there is no need to prune it if you are using it frequently.
Most people I know are fond of rosemary, but it is not everyone’s favourite herb. Some find the taste a bit overpowering, others can’t get enough of it. The Italians, who favour it more than any other nation, especially enjoy it with roast lamb and suckling pig.
When barbecuing lamb or pork, it’s a good idea to throw a few sprigs of rosemary on the embers from time to time so the smoke from the burning leaves perfumes the meat. Some cooks, especially those who like a subtle presence of rosemary, use thick fronds of the plant to baste the meat with marinade while it grills. Another efficient way of achieving a subtle flavour of the herb is to add it to vinegar or virgen extra olive oil.
Take a nice long well-populated frond of fresh rosemary, thread it into a suitable bottle and fill it with a good wine vinegar or olive oil. Leave it for at least a month before using.
Spanish cooks who enjoy the flavour of rosemary add it to paella. When the paella is half-cooked, they place three of four sprigs of fresh rosemary (or to taste) on the surface of the rice and discard them before serving the paella. The rosemary gives paella a distinctive and interesting touch that doesn’t overwhelm the other ingredients.
The rosemary flavour in paella originally started with the authentic Valencian paella, which contains snails. As the snails are slowly simmered in water with lots of rosemary, the paella rice takes on a touch of the herb.
Some Valencian housewives and cooks discovered that by adding sprigs of rosemary 10 minutes or so before the rice was ready, they got the herb’s flavour when they didn’t have any snails on hand. The custom spread and in some Spanish families the sprigs of rosemary are an essential on paella days.
If you make your own pizzas, try adding some finely chopped fresh leaves to the topping instead of the more ubiquitous oregano. It makes a superb change. And if it’s focaccia you’re making, then sprinkling the surface with chopped rosemary spikes before it goes into the oven is a must.
The finely chopped fresh leaves added to a scone mixture give an unusual taste sensation. Hot rosemary-scented scones spread with butter are a superb treat with an afternoon cup of tea.
Rosemary, which can be used if you have run out of thyme, can also be added successfully to pea soup, minestrone and spinach soup. Try it in casseroles and stews, and add a few sprigs when you are simmering a knuckle of pickled pork, which is available at El Corte Inglés.
Some people dislike the presence of the spiky leaves in the mouth but that shouldn’t be a problem if you’re using fresh leaves from a youngish plant.
And rosemary leaves should always be acceptable when they’ve been cooked in a stew, casserole or boiled meat dish, because they become very soft and are barely perceptible on the palate.
The oil in rosemary leaves can sometimes be rather strong, so this is one of those treacherous herbs that can spoil a dish if we are heavy-handed with it.
Unless you and your guests are addicts, you should always use it in moderation — and that is good advice when working with all herbs and spices.