Fresh herbs

Posted by Jenni

An herb plant seems more ancient to me than a tomato plant in its cage or sugar snaps bobbing on their trellised runners. Noodling around in an herb garden feels familiar, even practiced. In an old-world kind of way.

When I work my knife over a small mound of cilantro, my nasal passages filling up with the woodsy, deep scent, I’m not so different from the legions of women who have chopped, ground and torn the leaves into pots and skillets over the centuries.

But I’m not emotionally attached to the long histories of popular herbs, or to the lore surrounding them, even though they inform and interest me. Lemon balm has been said to ensure longevity, rosemary to chase off illness and evil, parsley to kindle love, but knowing this is not what makes me nostalgic in the herb garden.

It’s the surplus of good scents. The pine forest of rosemary. The slow burn of sage. The sweet, wild promises of mint and basil.

I cook with fresh herbs for the flavor, of course. Dried basil flakes from a bottle don’t have the full, fresh taste of a pillowy basil leaf from the garden. Chives and cilantro lose their character once they’ve been dried. Fresh herbs taste real. They’re the nonfiction of the herb world.

But the way they smell, that opens the door to fiction. One whiff of fresh dill and my mind concocts a miniature scene set in another herb garden, long ago. I understand, even before I add it to my butter-sauteed carrots, why dill has been cultivated since 3000 BCE and earlier. I understand because it smells incredible.

Scent makes the long journey of herbs accessible. This keeping of herb gardens, this using of the harvest to make our meals savory and fine; this trips the collective memory, this is something we have always done.

Trying to measure scent, though, is an inexact business. The only tools we have at our disposal are subjective. Alluring, lyrical, sweet; earth, rain, bark; floating, fine, fair – no word quite captures what you smelled when you plucked that first basil leaf of the season, pinched it off the stem with your fingernail, brought the bruised end to your nose and inhaled…something. What did it remind you of? Chilled melons by the pool? Herbed biscuits at the county fair? The tender air when you walked home one night after a hard rain? Before film captured images, there were canvas, paint, paper, ink. Before sound recording, there were paper and ink and words to describe the scream or rustle or scrape.

But, scent? We still have just paper, ink, voice recorders, pixels – words – to capture the immediacy of scent. How can we be sure it’s the same experience the people had before us? How can we know if the “Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram” in William Shakespeare’s writings smelled the same as ours do today? How can we even describe it to the person on the other end of the phone?

At any rate. You see why herbs make me think? I’m glad it’s summer and that we’re in the middle of a season when we can, quite easily, inhale the fresh scents of garden herbs almost any time.

One place to find them is at the market. This week I saw parsley, basil, dill and cilantro (all from Rising River Farm, pictured above), and gorgeous baskets of mint. From my own garden, I’m enjoying pinches of basil in salads (we’re still eating Chie’s version from last week) and preparing to make enough traditional pesto to freeze some for the winter. After all the interesting versions I made earlier this summer, I’m looking forward to the option of basil pesto on my pasta.

As for this week’s recipe, go ahead and grab a bunch of basil. If there’s a change of plans before Chie posts a recipe on Thursday, I’ll update this post.

Enjoy your beautiful, fresh, fragrant herbs this week.