Not so long ago there were no fresh herbs at the market during the winter months except, of course, for the omnipresent and ubiquitous parsley. And all cooks were most grateful for that because parsley has a superb flavour and is the most versatile herb of the bunch.
I know of no herb that can be used as successfully in such a wide variety of dishes. And although I have comes across a few people who are not keen on basil or oregano, say, I have never met anyone who dislikes parsley.
However, for the past 15 years or so some stalls at the Mercat d’Olivar and many of the better supermarkets have been selling a nice selection of cut fresh herbs. The supermarket of El Corte Inglés also stocks the same herbs in pots.
During the winter these herbs are grown in plastic tunnels in the south of Spain, so they are out of season and never at their best. But they are still good buys, especially for those dishes for which the dried version of a herb is simply not good enough.
Dried basil, for instance, is an abomination. Its aroma and flavour bear no resemblance whatever to that of the fresh leaves and it is gritty and unpleasant on the palate. It adds nothing whatever to a cooked dish and on salads and other raw foods it is at its worst, especially when we are looking for something of the taste we associate with fresh basil.
I bought dried basil for the first time some 55 years ago. I used it once then threw it out and have never used it since
I first tasted oregano when I came to Majorca and discovered it in a mixed bunch of herbs sold here for flavouring dishes of snails. The other herbs in the bunch are parsley, leaf celery, fennel and mint. I used the oregano for pasta and immediately adored it — and eventually became an addict.
Oregano for me is the most Mediterranean of the herbs and the mere smell of it makes me think of Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food and trying to reproduce her recipes on coldish rainy days in July.
The word oregano comes from two Greek words: ‘oros’ (mountain) and ‘genos’ (burst of laughter). That’s why oregano is sometimes called ‘the joy of the mountains’ — a good name for it because it is a vivacious-looking plant with its oval leaves and little white or pink flowers.
Oregano is very much a herb of the south, a plant that likes sunny climes. But it will also grow in the north, even in places where it is cold and rainy. However, don’t expect British marjoram, basically the same plant, to be anything like that growing in Mediterranean countries.
Oregano is a plant influenced by the terrain in which it grows, as well as by the weather. The herb growing in Provence will always be more aromatic and have more taste than those plants that grow north of Paris.
It is also sensitive to its environment, and varieties growing near the sea, for instance, will vary in aroma and flavour to those found in mountainous areas. Expert connoisseurs can spot these differences and tell which plants came from Greece, Italy, Provence or Spain.
Oregano is an essential herb in each of these four areas. The Greeks use generous amounts of it in some of their most famous dishes. Oregano and thyme are the two main herbs of Greek cuisine and the country’s hillsides are covered with them.
It is also one of the principal herbs in Italian cooking. The worldwide popularity of pizza helped to make oregano an instantly recognisable aroma and taste in countries where it was previously unknown.
In France oregano is used mainly in the south, particularly in Provence, and it wasn’t until pizza became the dernier cri of the young eating-out crowd that many French people tasted oregano for the first time. And some of them never use their word ‘origan’: they call it ‘l’herbe à pizza’.
In Spanish regional cooking oregano is used mainly in Mediterranean coastal areas and especially in Majorca. It’s called ‘moraduix’ here and it is used in many island recipes. Majorcan cooks add it to vegetable soups, meatballs, stuffings, salads and tripe dishes. It’s always at hand when chargrilling fish or meat as well as when roasting lamb or pork. It also goes into fish and meat sauces.
The late Richard Olney, an American who lived in Toulon, was one of the best writers on French food and I’m a great admirer of his work. He shunned fresh oregano, using only the dried leaves.
In Simple French Food, a superb cookbook which all lovers of French food should have and study, he wrote: “Oregano must be dried to give of its perfume…it must be picked in flower and dried, preferably in tied-up bouquets.”
I completely disagree that only dried oregano is worth using. I find that fresh leaves plucked straight from the stem have aromas and flavours that are magnificently intense and persistent.
I use it on pasta dishes and it is quite heavenly. When the pasta is in its serving bowl, I sprinkle the surface with leaves I pull apart with my fingers because they blacken if cut with a knife. I spoon over a sauce made with chopped fresh tomatoes sautéed in virgen extra olive oil and add grated grana padano cheese. The taste of the oregano is absolutely delightful.
One of my favourite ways of using fresh oregano is in a plain omelette. When the surface of the omelette is still runny and just before you fold it over, sprinkle on the leaves and fold. It’s a taste sensation that’s quite unique.
However, I fully agree with Olney when he raves about the delights of dried oregano. It is the most successful of the dried herbs (along with dill) because it keeps so much of its original aroma and flavour. This happens because its aromatic properties are concentrated in an essential oil that doesn’t undergo any changes when the herb is dried. That isn’t the case with most other herbs.
Dried oregano is also a pleasure to cook with and when the fresh leaves aren’t available I use it in large amounts. Not quite by the handful, but certainly by as much as I can pick up between thumb and four fingers. But as I said earlier, I’m an addict.