August 8, 2020

Delight your Senses, Awaken your Memories

Rosemary has been cultivated throughout recorded history. In fact, the word for rosemary has been found carved into a cuneiform stone tablet from 5000 BC. After such a long run, you'd think there would be nothing left to write about it.  Still and all, long histories have a way of being interesting in and of themselves. Here is a cultural tidbit worthy of mention. Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus and previously Rosmarinus officinalis) made its way around the Old World, arriving in English medicinal herbal writings in the eighth century. It became a symbol for fidelity, fertility, and happiness. It was widely cultivated in English kitchen gardens and came to be associated with women. In The Treasury of Botany (1870), John Lindley writes,

'There is a vulgar belief in Gloucestershire and other counties, that Rosemary will not grow well unless where the mistress is "master"; and so touchy are some of the lords of creation upon this point, that we have more than once had reason to suspect them of privately injuring a growing rosemary in order to destroy this evidence of their want of authority.' 

Rosemary does grow particularly lushly at my house; so, please don’t mention this mind-set to my sweetheart.

I bought my first rosemary plant at a natural foods store on a whim. I was subsequently gifted two beautiful rosemary plants on two separate occasions based on two additional cultural traditions, which I will elaborate on shortly. I planted the first plant near the house in an unirrigated spot. The literature assured me that rosemary is a hardy plant that tolerates heat, prefers dry soil, and, to put a point on it, suffers if there is insufficient drainage. With sandy soil and occasional downpours, I was good to go. The plant prospered. Occasionally, where a branch touched the ground, it would set down roots. Then a hot summer came with no rain for a couple weeks at a time. The needle-like leaves yellowed and died back, as did my lawn. Contrary to my usual practice, I hand watered the rosemary; I left the lawn to fend for itself. Rosemary may be hardy, but perhaps not hardy enough for Florida's hot summer combined with bouts of droughts.

As early as the 16th century, rosemary came to be associated in Europe with Christmas trees. One December, a few favorite family members came to stay nearby. When they left in March, they gifted us a rosemary plant, which they had used as a Christmas tree over the holiday season. Thank you Elaine and Erik for what is now a successful component of our landscape. Having learned a little bit of how rosemary fared in my yard, I wanted a spot in partial shade. I planted it at the edge of a mulched bed, hemmed in on three sides by taller bushes, but facing a southeast opening on the fourth side. This perennial plant took a year or two to get comfortable; but since establishing itself, it has branched out farther and farther toward the sun. Unlike its sister, which I planted in full sun, this plant never needs watering. Partial shade during the Florida summer keeps the plant's transpiration rate down. Each year, as the nearby bushes grow outward, the rosemary runs ahead spreading its fragrant, attractive, evergreen leaves. It releases a whiff of rosemary each time I walk by and brush along the plant. This proved to be a superior spot to grow rosemary.

Handling the rosemary and kaffir lime from this
fragrant centerpriece releases lovely aromas at mealtime.
I hadn't spent much time enjoying and exploring my sense of smell, until I grew rosemary. Once I had some in the yard, I could bring a long sprig inside and leave it on the kitchen table for a few weeks. Or I could add a small sprig to each plate as I serve a meal. Ruffling the leaves as we eat fills the air with its exquisite scent. I often do the same with other fragrant elements from my garden. With this use in mind, a few sprigs of rosemary make a nice gift, when visiting friends. On a more practical front, researchers have been looking into whether or not the smell of rosemary can actually stimulate one's memory. Most of the studies have been performed on rats and mice, so we really haven't made a lot of headway. 

Over time, I have become better acquainted with rosemary in the kitchen. The leaves are full of aromatic oils that are released in sauces, soups and stews. Pinch the tip of a rosemary sprig and slide your other hand down the stem to strip the leaves. Unlike many herbs, you don't want to add the stems to a saucy dish, unless you are planning to dig them out, before serving. They can be woody, tough, and generally unpleasant to eat. The finer you chop the rosemary before adding it, the more quickly the oils will be released and the easier they will be to eat. The leaves are best added at the start of the cooking process so that the oils will be more fully released. Beware. Rosemary can easily overpower any dish. Even with a recipe, it may be best to start with a small amount and check the flavor before adding more. 

Most culinary creatives feel that rosemary is a particularly nice accompaniment for meat and fish. I have no experience with this, but it makes sense. Given its strong flavor, rosemary stands its ground, well-armed with flavor and scent, in an assertive meat dish. Many people like to grill with it. Add a branch of rosemary to the grill and lay your preferred hunk of flesh across it or tuck it under the skin before cooking. As the rosemary heats up, it infuses the meat with its flavor.

If you are somebody who has little experience gardening or cooking, consider testing the waters with rosemary. It's easy to grow, hardy, and forgiving of gardening faux pas. By way of example, one day, a car drove into and ran over the rosemary bush. At least half of the above-ground portion of the bush was flattened. You could see the tire tracks. Amazingly, the plant recovered fully over the course of about a year. Once you are growing rosemary, you can make tea with it. Let's say making your favorite soup involves buying a can of soup, pouring it in a pot, heating it up, and eating it. You could add one more step - add some fresh, diced rosemary and let it simmer a few extra minutes to spruce up your soup. Fresh herbs have a remarkable impact on what otherwise might be an unremarkable dish.

I eat a lot of salad. With that in mind, I wanted to figure out how to add rosemary and its wonderful aroma to a salad. If you've ever tried biting into fresh rosemary leaves, it is not particularly pleasant. It is a bit rough in texture and sharp in flavor. It occurred to me that I frequently see rosemary as a major component in salad dressing or dipping oil. If I chopped the rosemary up very fine and let it sit in oil and/or vinegar for a while, that would diffuse the flavor. Currently, if I add rosemary to a salad, I let it marinate in oil and/or vinegar, while I'm preparing the rest of the salad. When you go this route, you can add any other spices you want to the mix along with a little salt. To make it sweeter, add a little sugar, honey, or finely chopped fruit. You can even add finely diced fresh onion, mustard, and/or garlic. Whisk it up, until it is nicely blended and voila - honey-garlic-rosemary vinaigrette anyone? Once you've put together the rest of the salad ingredients, mix in the rosemary marinade. Or put it in the refrigerator and use it tomorrow. Or dip your crusty bread in it.
Making salad dressing: fresh rosemary and garlic infusing in an oil and honey base

Historically, due to its reputation for strengthening memory, rosemary had come to hold a symbolic position during important life passages. In various parts of the world, rosemary branches were tied together and given to wedding guests, given as a New Year’s gift, as well as carried by mourners at a funeral to be thrown onto coffins as they were lowered into the ground. When my father died, a couple of friends brought me a rosemary plant in his memory, hearkening to rosemary’s association with memory. What a thoughtful way to commemorate my Dad. Thank you Mary and Estelle. How appropriate to bring me a rosemary plant on this occasion.

Another quality attributed to fresh rosemary is that it repels insects. I have a starfruit tree, whose last two crops had been spoiled by tiny flying midges of some sort. I had planted turmeric under the tree as a potential repellant, but the turmeric was barely growing. How about some rosemary? I decided to plant my third rosemary plant at the drip line of the starfruit, where it would have the advantage of being partially shaded. Spoiler alert: it didn't work.

I got into the habit of using fresh rosemary in various ways, but my bushes were growing at a much faster rate than I was using them. At this point, I had to ask whether I truly needed three rosemary bushes. One established bush could easily supply the whole neighborhood with fresh rosemary for culinary purposes. 

There are other uses, including perfume and skin care product possibilities.  In traditional medicine, it is reported to refresh the brain, strengthen memory, and treat conjunctivitis, ear infections, arthritis, indigestion, and more. In the 13th Century, the Queen of Hungary became paralyzed, and is said to have been cured by rubbing Rosemary-infused wine into her limbs. This preparation, known as Queen of Hungary Water, became very popular as a remedy for gout, skin problems, dandruff, and to prevent baldness. During the Middle Ages, rosemary was thought to ward off the Black Plague. In the 14th and 15th century, people generally burned rosemary in their homes to stop the Plague. During World War II, rosemary and juniper were burned in French hospitals to kill germs (not to be confused with germ warfare). Looking over the use of rosemary through a good chunk of European history, it was considered more useful for its medicinal uses than its culinary uses. 

I decided not to worry about excess bushes, but rather to enjoy their beauty and fragrance. Even though rosemary is woven into the world's cultural fabric as a threat to patriarchy, a stand-in for Christmas trees, and in funeral rites, I am determined to stick to its culinary uses. I will leave any medicinal and cosmetic uses to others. If it turns out that rosemary wards off covid-19 infections, I will be gobsmacked, but prepared. 

For my friends in colder regions: Certain varieties of rosemary are more cold-hardy than others, so research your options. As a general rule of thumb, the experts say that rosemary will die, if winter temperatures dip below 30℉.  I have never grown rosemary indoors, but I have some opinions on the prospect nonetheless. I suspect that bringing rosemary inside in a container during the winter is problematic based on the significantly lower levels of light, lower humidity, higher temperatures, and lower levels of air circulation found inside. Compare that to winter by the Mediterranean Sea, where rosemary originated. If it does not overwinter, set your expectations accordingly and treat rosemary as an annual.

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