Sep 23, 2010

Italian language class II - Fragrances, herbs and spices

Welcome back to class, I'm happy to see so many of you returned. Now that you have mastered your basic Italian kitchen terminology and made good use of common foods employed in eco-friendly household and beauty tips we can upgrade your Italian language knowledge {in the kitchen} with a number of new key words.

ERBE e SPEZIE – Herbs and Spices
Useful and odorous, herbs and spices will enhance and improve your recipes and culinary inventions with simplicity. Whether dried, store-bought and kept in convenient spice shakers or mills; or garden fresh, growing from a potted plant on the windowsill, or blooming in your herb garden, the useful cook’s helpers should never be missing from your kitchen. Here are the Italian names–and practical use–of nature's most perfumy creatures:

Aglio [AH jli oh] I have written entire encyclopedias about garlic, you may want to refresh your memory by reading a little about aglio at Love Letter to the Bulb

Alloro [ah LOHR roh] Also called laurel leaf, or bay leaf, is an aromatic herb that comes from the evergreen bay laurel tree, native to the Mediterranean. Early Greeks and Romans attributed magical properties to the laurel leaf, and associated the shrub to Hermes as his representative hallmark. Alloro has long been a symbol of honor, celebration and triumph, as in “winning your laurels.” The crown of the Roman imperial Cæsars was a gilded wreath of laurel leaves strung on a crimson ribbon.
Bay leaves are used to flavor soups, stews, vegetables and meats, but generally removed before serving. Fresh bay leaves are available in markets in Italy but can also be picked off the spontaneously growing shrubs that line city streets and offbeat country roads. Dried bay leaves, which have a fraction of the flavor of fresh, can be found in supermarkets. Store your bay leaves airtight in a cool, dark place.

Tip: Overuse of this herb can make a dish bitter.

Aneto [ah NEH toh] Thought by 1st-century Romans to be a good luck symbol, dill has been around for thousands of years. This annual herb is marketed in both fresh and dried forms. The distinctive flavor of fresh dill weed in no way translates to its dried form. Fresh dill does, however, quickly lose its fragrance during heating, so should be added toward the end of the cooking time. Dill weed is used to flavor many Italian dishes such as mixed misticanza salads, grilled vegetables, meats and smoked tuna carpaccio in particular.

Anice [AH nee chey] Anise is used in many Italian preparations. Like the Romans and Greeks did back in their time, it still commonly flavors poultry, pork and rabbit meats.
Anise is also used as a dessert ingredient in many regional cakes, biscotti, and gingerbread peppered with pine nuts, raisins and candied fruits. It is also a prominent ingredient in many southern Italian gelato flavors, namely ghiaccioli (popsicles). Sweet anise flavored desserts can be made with either dried and powdered seeds, or thanks to an anise liqueur: Pastis, Absinthe and Anisette in France, Raki, Ouzo and Arrak in Greece and Turkey, which are other names for the same thing: Sambuca! In Sicily it is called Tutone, and Mistrà in the Marche region, but whatever its name, it is a wonderful fresh and highly alcoholic liqueur often enjoyed chilled "con la mosca" (with a single floating coffee bean) or to doctor up espresso in "caffé corretto" (corrected coffee).

Basilico [bah ZEE lee koh] Fresh basil has a pungent flavor that some describe as a cross between licorice and cloves. It’s a key herb in Mediterranean cooking, and essential to the delicious Ligurian Pesto. Basil is a summer herb but can be grown successfully inside during the winter in a sunny window. Choose evenly colored leaves with no sign of wilting. You can refrigerate basil, wrapped in barely damp paper towels and then in a plastic bag, for up to 4 days. Or display a gorgeously decorative and fragrant bunch of basil, stems and roots down, in a glass of water.
Fresh basil should always be hand-torn, since the leaves cut by a metal blade lose much of their fragrant properties. Hence the reason why genuine pesto is made with an olive wood pestle and a marble mortar rather than an electric food processor. The difference is however not that dramatic, I've tried both methods, so trust me.
Dried basil loses much of its aromatic potency. A solution is preserving fresh basil in olive oil: place only the dry wiped leaves (no stems or flowers) in an airtight container filled with extra virgin olive oil. The basil fragrance will permeate the storing oil, giving you a double-flavor bonus. Use your basil-oil and leaves as the base for pasta, to dress salads and stir-fry vegetables.

Trivia: Elisabetta da Messina, heroine of Boccaccio’s naughty Decameron, actually buried the head of her dead lover in the vase of a basil plant and watered it with her tears... Bizarre or what?

Cannella [cah NEHL lah] Once used in love potions and to perfume the skin of wealthy Romans, ages-old cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. The bark is harvested during the rainy season when it’s more pliable. When dried, it curls into long quills, which are either cut into lengths and sold as cinnamon sticks, or ground into powder. Ceylon cinnamon is buff-colored and mildly sweet in flavor; Cassia cinnamon is a dark, reddish brown color and has a more pungent, slightly bittersweet flavor. Cassia is the common variety used and sold in many countries. Cinnamon is widely used in sweet recipes of course, but also makes an intriguing addition to Italian savory dishes such as stews and marinades.

Chiodi di Garofano [KYO dee · dee · gah ROH fah noh] Considered one of the world’s most important spices, cloves are the dried, unopened flower bud of the Indonesian evergreen clove tree. Reddish brown and peg-shaped, their name comes from clavus, the Latin word for 'nail.' Pungent and aromatic cloves are sold whole or ground and can be used to flavor a multitude of dishes ranging from sweet to savory; but also used in warm tonic beverages, like Vin Brulé. Its Italian name is perhaps derived from the ‘clove pink,’ a clove-scented Eurasian herbaceous plant from which the carnation is bred. The Italian word for carnation is garofano.

Trivia: Did you know the oil of cloves is the key element in aromatic analgesic oil extracted from these buds and used medicinally, especially for the relief of dental pain?

Dragoncello [drah gon CEL loh] Tarragon, terragon or estragon, is a perennial herb native to Europe and parts of Asia; its Latin appellation is Artemisia dracunculus. The narrow, pointed, and dark green leaves (either fresh, or preserved in vinegar) are used to enhance foods with their distinctive anise-like flavor. Tarragon is widely used in classic European cooking for a variety of dishes including chicken, fish and vegetables, as well as many sauces, the best known being béarnaise sauce. Terragon is available fresh in the summer and early fall and year-round in dried and powdered forms.

Note: Care should be taken when using terragon since its punch can easily dominate other flavors.

Erba cipollina [EHR bah · chee pohl LEE nah] Related to the onion and leek, chives have slender, vivid green, hollow grass-like stems, hence the Italian name which roughly translates to 'little onion grass.' Chives have a mild oniony flavor and are available fresh year-round. Look for those with a uniform green color and no signs of wilting or browning. Once harvested, it can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator up to a week. Fresh chives can be snipped with scissors to the desired length, and are delicious in many cooked dishes but should be added toward the end of the cooking time to retain their flavor. Both chives and their edible lavender flowers are a tasty and colorful addition to salads, cold soups and marinades.

Finocchio [fee NOK yo] All the parts of the fennel plant can be used in the kitchen! The white swollen, bulb-like stem base can be eaten raw dipped in olive oil as crudité or chopped and tossed in salads, or even grilled, with butter and grated parmigiano. Wild fennel, in Italy commonly called "finocchietto selvatico", whose flowers and seed-like fruits are commonly used either in dried form–which can be more or less sweet, peppery to bitter, according to variety–or fresh, along with the leaves (a dill-like grassy beard). This part is typically used to flavor soups, seafood, salads and cheeses. Wild fennel leaves are one of the key ingredients in the divine Pasta con le Sarde recipe from Sicily.
The dried flowers are used to perfume boiled chestnuts, baked porcini mushrooms, brined olives and porchetta. The so called "seeds" are used in Puglia's Taralli crackers, Ciambelline or other homemade pastries, or to spice up mulled wine and herbal teas.

Ginepro [jee NEH pro] The astringent blue-black juniper berries are native to both Europe and the Americas. Juniper berries are too bitter to eat raw and are usually sold dried and used to flavor meats, sauces, stuffings, etc. They’re generally crushed before use to release their flavor. These pungent berries are the hallmark flavoring of gin. Although we Italians use ginepro berries most commonly to make killer homemade grappa.

Maggiorana [mahd joh RAH nah] Early Greeks wove marjoram into funeral wreaths and planted it on graves to symbolize the loved ones' happiness both in life and beyond. There are many varieties of this ancient herb, which is a member of the mint family. Marjoram is available fresh in some produce markets and supermarkets with large fresh-herb sections; more often, it is found dried. The Italian hardy species is called pot marjoram, which has oval, inch-long, pale green leaves and a mild, sweet flavor. Marjoram can be used to flavor a variety of foods, particularly meats (especially lamb and veal) and vegetables. Because marjoram’s flavor is so delicate, it’s best added toward the end of the cooking time so its essence doesn’t completely dissipate

Menta [MEHN tah] Long a symbol of hospitality, Greek mythology claims that mint was once the nymph Mentha. She angered Pluto’s wife Persephone, who turned her into the aromatic herb. There are over 30 varieties of mint, the two most popular and widely available being peppermint and spearmint. Mint grows wild throughout the world and is cultivated in most of Europe, the United States and Asia. It’s most plentiful during summer months but many markets carry it year-round.

Mentuccia [mehn TOO tchah] Wild peppermint is the more pungent of the two species. It has bright green leaves, purple-tinged stems and a peppery flavor. And it grows virtually everywhere in Italy, from grassy public park carpets to cracks in the cobblestone-paved city streets. When you crush the plants, walking over them, the aroma is intoxicatingly good. Mentuccia is commonly used in cooking Carciofi alla Romana, tripe and my favorite summer frittata.

Origano [oh REE ganoh] Greek for "joy of the mountain," oregano was almost unheard of in the United States until soldiers came back from Italian World War II assignments raving about it. This herb, sometimes called wild marjoram, belongs to the mint family and is related to both marjoram and thyme. Because of its pungency, fresh oregano requires a bit more caution in its use. Choose bright green, fresh looking bunches with no sign of wilting or yellowing. Refrigerate in plastic bags for up to 3 days. Dried Mediterranean oregano is readily available in any supermarket in both crumbled and powdered forms. As with all dried herbs, oregano should be stored in a cool, dark place for no more than 6 months. Oregano goes extremely well with some fresh tomato-based dishes and is a commonly used pizza herb for marinara and in Pizzaiola sauce, yet not in everyday pasta sauce, as many are led to believe overseas.

Tip: Trying to lose some stubborn pounds before the impending holidays? Try a herbal tea infusion made with oregano for appetite suppression.

Pepe [PEH peh] Pepper in one form or other has been used around the world to enhance the flavor of both savory and sweet dishes for eons. Because it stimulates gastric juices, it delivers a digestive bonus as well. The world’s most popular spice is actually a berry that grows in grapelike clusters on the pepper plant Piper nigrum, a climbing vine native to India and Indonesia. The berry is processed to produce three basic types of peppercorn–black, white and green. The most common is the black peppercorn, which is picked when the berry is not quite ripe, then dried until it shrivels and the skin turns dark brown to black. It’s the strongest flavored of the three: slightly hot with a hint of sweetness. The less pungent white peppercorn has been allowed to ripen, after which the skin is removed and the berry is dried. The result is a smaller, smoother-skinned, tan berry with a milder flavor. White pepper is used to a great extent for appearance, usually in light-colored sauces or foods where dark specks of black pepper would stand out. The green peppercorn is the soft, underripe berry that’s usually preserved in brine. It has a fresh flavor that’s less pungent than the berry in its other dried forms. And pink pepper, do you like it? Whole peppercorns freshly ground with a pepper mill deliver more oomph than do preground peppers, which lose flavor fairly quickly. Roman pasta dishes like Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe and Amatriciana would be nothing without a generous dusting of pepe.

Peperoncino [peh peh ron CHEE noh] Red hot chili peppers (one of my favorite bands too) are the thin, 1/2 to 2-inch long chiles that have a bright red, wrinkled skin. When fresh, they have a slightly sweet flavor that can range from medium to medium-hot. Peperoncini are most often sold dried and their spice potency is invertly proportionate to their size. The smaller, the fiercer. The hotness-degree also increases as we descend down the boot-shaped peninsula; the southern region of Calabria produces peperoncini that are appropriately called Diavolicchi or little devils, whose Scoville heat index (for measuring a pepper’s pain to your palate) rating could equal that of their Mexican Habanero cousin. When crushed, the spicy components released actually bring tears to your eyes.

Prezzemolo [pretz EH moh low] In ancient times parsley wreaths were used to ward off drunkenness–though proof of their effectiveness in that capacity is scarce. In olden day retrograde rural communities, Italian midwives were said to perform abortions with the mysterious use of parsley. Today, this slightly peppery, fresh herb is thankfully more commonly used as a flavoring and garnish. Though there are more than 30 varieties of this herb, the most popular are curly-leaf parsley (mostly used for garnishing) and the more strongly flavored Italian or flat-leaf parsley.
Italian parsley is sold in bunches (although many produce purveyors will throw it for free in your shopping bag along with an onion, a carrot and a rib of celery: calling it simply "odori") and should be chosen for its bright-green leaves that show no sign of wilting. Wash fresh parsley, shaking off excess moisture, and wrap first in paper towels, then in a plastic bag, and refrigerate for up to a week. Dried parsley is available in the spice section of most supermarkets but bears little resemblance to the flavor of fresh.

Note: Never attempt picking your own flatleaf parsley in the wild, as its leaves are dangerously similar to those of hemlock, a poisonous herb that if ingested can cause serious health issues. Being so similar in appearance, the two herbs can easily be mistaken. So instead of seasoning your fish entrée you could end up like Socrates, sprawled on the Athens jailhouse floor.

Rosmarino [ros ma REE noh] Used since 500 BC, rosemary is native to the Mediterranean area, where it grows wild (much of it on my window sill). Rosemary is now cultivated worldwide, its silver-green, needle-shaped leaves highly aromatic and whose flavor marries well with roasted garlic, meats and chunky cereal soups, like Pasta e Ceci. This herb is available in whole-leaf form (fresh and dried) as well as powdered.

Salvia [SAL vyah] Sage, a native Mediterranean herb has been enjoyed for centuries for both its culinary and medicinal uses. The Italian name salvia comes from a derivative of the Latin salvus, meaning "safe," a reference to the herb’s believed healing powers. The narrow, oval, velvety gray-green leaves of this pungent herb are slightly bitter and have a musty mint taste and aroma. I like to serve them deep fried in a crisp batter or sautéed in browned butter, drizzled over ricotta and spinach ravioli. As I have mentioned before, my grandmother Titta would have me rub a fresh sage leaf on my gums for healthy teeth. She died at age 77 with not a single cavity in her mouth.

Santoreggia [sahn toh REG jah] Winter savory, or its blander summer variety, is a herb the Romans used often to flavor their foods served in orgies and banquets. In cooking, winter savory has a reputation for going very well with beans and meats, very often poultry, and can be used in poultry stuffing. It has a strong spicy flavor but loses much of it under prolonged cooking. It may also be used medicinally, it is a stimulant, and is also a known aphrodisiac. Those Romans sure knew their herbs.

Timo [TEE moh] There are several varieties of thyme, the mint-family member, and perennial herb native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean. Garden thyme, the most often used variety, is a shrub with gray-green leaves giving off a pungent minty, slightly lemony aroma. Subvarieties include the narrow-leafed French thyme and broad-leafed English thyme. The most well known subvariety of wild thyme–a thick ground cover–is lemon thyme, a herb with a more pronounced lemon aroma than garden thyme. Whatever the variety, thyme is widely used in cooking to add flavor to vegetables, meat, poultry and fish dishes, soups and sauces. It’s a basic herb of Italian cuisine and integral to mazzetto aromatico, the Italian term for bouquet garni.

Zafferano [tzaf feh RAH noh] Legend has it that Hermes was casting his discus one day, and struck his friend Crocus, who fell dead. To honor Crocus’s memory Mercury {Hermes's Roman name} tinged the flowers upon which his friend lay, scarlet. Not the petals, which are a pale purple, but the pistils. The legend doesn’t say if Hermes also gave the stigmas the distinctive, rather haunting aroma that has made saffron one of the most sought after spices on the world markets, in case he did, we thank him for the gift. Abruzzo is Italy's major saffron producer, and it shines in local preparations like for example Scapece di Vasto, a savory fish stew similar to bouillabaisse.

What are your favorite and local herbs & spices you most commonly cook with?

Stay tuned for our next Italian Language class, in which we will discover the names and uses of Italy's finest staple ingredients. Until then...

Buon appetito!


  1. I have basil, thyme, oregano, sage, mint and tarragon in my herb garden. Oh how I love being able to step outside and pick off leaves for a recipe. This time of year, I dry them and have them all winter.

  2. Lola, What would we do without herbs :~) I find you to be the best teacher of the class~ I am learning so much!
    I love how complete you are!
    Thank you.

  3. i can almost speak what eat the sound of that cannella....

  4. i can almost speak what eat the sound of that cannella....

  5. Oh boy you are expecting us to learn a lot today! My husband is the chef around here and a great believer in herbs and spices and at one time or another we have used every one you list here today. The only one I am not particularly fond of is Anice.

  6. Fantastic. This will clear up a world of confusion.

  7. KarenG~ Oh, how I envy your herb garden, it must be wonderful to harvest your own!!
    CChuck~ Thank you for always being so kind!
    Brian~ Mmm... cannella over toasted bread, fruit or in freshly brewed cofee...
    Roseann~ Grazie!
    Lindy~ It's an aquired taste, yes. I must say Pastis did it for me... :)
    Alice~ Ah, great! I'm happy you enjoyed. Baci

  8. Ma perché il coriandolo si trova così difficlmente qui in Italia??? Cannella, cardamomo, cumino e anice stellato sono fra le mie spezie preferite. Erbe? Timo, maggiorana e nepetella. Bello questo post.

  9. Cate~
    io lo trovo da Castroni a Roma, hanno aperto 2 nuovi punti vendita e uno è a due passi da casa!! Brava, la nepetella!! Grazie del tuo commento.

  10. Interessantissimo e ben fatto. Io sono un'amante delle erbe aromatiche, e solo quest'anno ho scoperto la santoreggia che e' diventata la mia erba preferita.

  11. Francesca~
    grazie! Anche io sono un'amante delle erbe e spezie... peccato che il mio davanzale sia così piccolo!