Jump to main content

Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Virtues and Pleasures of Herbs through History

Physic, Flavor, Fragrance and Dye

Flavor

How bland would our meals be without the wonderful taste of herbs? They enhance not only the flavor of food and beverages but also aid our digestion or have preservative qualities. The leaf of a plant is often referred to as an herb, and the bud, fruit, seed or root as a spice, but of course, as with most things about herbs, they don't fall into rigid categories. With some herbs all the parts are edible and impart the same flavor, others have different tastes depending on whether the leaf or seed is used. Some herbs enhance flavors through long cooking, while others impart an aromatic zest when added at the last minute (their flavors do not hold up to long cooking and are destroyed by high temperature).

Herbs that were native to a region became part of the cuisine through experimentation, and these traditions were passed down by oral or written tradition. Receipt (or recipe) books were at one time rare. Mediterranean herbs were brought to northern Europe by the Romans, and these introduced plants continued to be cultivated in monastery gardens. Some were grown as vegetables and later were used more for seasoning. Through voyages of exploration and the establishment of trade routes, exotic herbs and spices became available throughout many parts of the world, and these luxuries were no longer restricted to royalty or the wealthiest classes. The idea of regional cuisine no longer applied, but even so imported spices would have been more expensive than herbs that were collected in the countryside or easily cultivated in kitchen gardens. So it is most likely that locally grown herbs were more often used to flavor food and beverage. The cuisines of the Old World were transplanted and revised in the New World depending on the availability of plants. Some herbs thrived in our climate, while other native herbs were discovered. New ways of using herbs mirrors immigration patterns. Historically, herbs that were once reviled because of their pungency or unusual flavor or were used only medicinally gained acceptance and have become an important part of day-to-day cooking.

Modern concerns for health and diet go hand-in-hand with the use of herbs. Used to season foods, they eliminate the need for excessive salting. With an interest in international cuisines, vegetarianism, and organic and "slow foods" from local farmers, having access to the freshest food materials possible eliminates the need for preservatives and yields better flavors. Even though fresh herbs are available in most grocery stores, there still is nothing like an herb collected fresh from the garden. Wait until the dew has dried, but before the sun is hot, to collect herbs for cooking. The essential oils are released at this time and will be more flavorful. You can become familiar with the individual tastes of herbs by adding them to butter and then start experimenting with combinations of flavorful herbs. Grow them, use them and awaken your taste buds to the wonderful variety of culinary herbs.

Marjoram

Marjoram has often been confused with oregano, both being lumped together into the genus Origanum Linnaeus, but the flavors couldn't be more different. The sweet and delicate spice-scent of marjoram is no match for the sharpness of oregano, Origanum vulgare Linnaeus, that is synonymous with pizza. Marjoram was part of every medieval garden and used for sweetened water prepared for hand washing at meals. It was also used then, as today, in soups, meats and stuffing (where marjoram's properties of preserving as well as flavoring are important), omelets and mild-based desserts, and as an essential in bouquet garni.

Before the use of hops and the commercial production of beer, a variety of herbs including marjoram were used to flavor and preserve fermented ales. In the early Middle Ages, brewing was often one of a country wife's domestic duties, but certainly the quality varied greatly due to the lack of availability of consistent ingredients and their range of experience. Monasteries were the first houses of "artisan" brewing. With a greater supply of grain, facility and equipment, they were able to develop a more consistent product. Brewed ales were considered more nutritious than water, so these fermented beverages were considered an important part of a healthy diet. The larger-scale production in monasteries allowed them to be self-sufficient and to offer respite to many a weary traveler. Although domestic brewing persisted, the production methods in the monasteries eventually were adopted by commercial ventures that were regulated by local governments by the 12th and 13th centuries.

Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566), a physician, university lecturer and prolific writer, produced one of the great classic herbals of the Renaissance. In his 1542 herbal, De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes, he provided 511 illustrations, carefully rendered by three artists, to show roots, stems, leaves, flowers and fruits, including pictures of many foreign plants. Albrecht Meyer (fl.ca.1542) made the drawings based on living plants; Heinrich Füllmaurer (fl.1542) transferred the drawings to blocks of wood; and Viet Rudolph Speckle (fl.1542) carved the wood around the lines of the image to create a relief, which was then inked and printed on paper. To the Latin text were added several indexes and a glossary, an unusual feature for the time. Although his text was based on the work of ancient writers, he emphasized information about the plants and their medicinal qualities, omitting astrology, mysticism and other such interpretations that could be found in herbals of this period (Fig. 1).

This very copy of De Historia Stirpium was chosen by the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America as the basis for a facsimile edition, with commentary, published by Stanford University Press in 1999 as The Great Herbal of Leonhart Fuchs. The project was initiated in 1967 and funds were contributed by members of the Herb Society of America and the Garden Club of America as well as by Hunt Institute and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The vision and leadership of the Potomac Unit conceived this project and helped to make it a reality.

Fennel

What a generous plant is fennel (Foeniculum Miller)—all of the parts are edible, not only the bulbs and leaves, but also the stems, seeds and even the flowers. The Romans used it for a relish with olives and other herbs, and bread was baked on a bed of fennel seeds to add flavor. Once brought to Europe it was grown in monastery gardens as a vegetable and for its medicinal qualities, for it soothed the stomach. The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery, compiled about 1390, was one of the first medieval guides to cookery from recipes of the master cooks of Richard II of England. It has the following recipe for fennel cooked with onion and spices:

Fenkel [fennel] in soppes XX.III. XVII
Take blades of Fenkel. shrede hem not to smale, do hem to see in water and oile and oynouns [onions] mynced erwith. do erto safroun [saffron] and salt and powdour douce [a sweet powder made with ingredients such as cinnamon, ginger, and pepper], serue it forth, take brede ytosted and lay the sewe onoward.

John Parkinson in his Theatrum Botanicum (1640) thought that fennel and fish were made for each other:

...the Italians especially doe much delight in the use thereof, and therefore transplant and whiten it, to make it more tender to please the taste, which being sweete and sometimes hot helpeth to digest the crude qualitie of fish...We use it to lay upon fish [as today we would grill with herbs] or to boyle it [poach] therewith.

Later in the century John Evelyn, an advocate of vegetarianism, praised the use of fennel in salads in his Acetaria: A Discourse on Sallets (1699):

the stalks are peel'd when young, and then dress'd like sellery. The tender tufts and leaves emerging, being minc'd. are eaten alone with vinegar, or oyl and pepper. The Italians eat the blanc'd stalk (which they call cartucci) all winter long (Evelyn 1937).

Among the myriad of uses consider using the leaves in salad, roast the bulb with olive oil as a side dish, use the seeds in breads and sausage, or use the stems when grilling fish. The variations are endless.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1700–1758) was among the first women to achieve fame as a botanical illustrator. In order to extricate her husband Alexander Blackwell from debtor's prison, in 1735 she began work on an illustrated herbal at the suggestion of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), who told her that botanists still lacked an up-to-date, illustrated text of medicinal plants. She took lodgings near the Chelsea Physic Garden and drew the plants growing there. Her incarcerated husband prepared the text, and Elizabeth engraved and colored the 500 illustrations, including this one of fennel (Fig. 2). The herbal was issued in weekly parts of four plates plus a page of text on place of growth, time of flowering, uses and common names in several languages.

Garlic

Garlic (Allium Linnaeus), which today is used to flavor dishes of many cultures, was not always thought to be an acceptable ingredient in cooking. Along with bread and onions, garlic was a staple of the diet of the enslaved, the military or the poor from ancient through medieval times since it was thought to give strength to the body. Peoples of many cultures, including the Egyptians and Greeks grew garlic mainly for its medicinal attributes. Even after its introduction into northern Europe by the Romans, it continued to be grown in monastery gardens for such a use.

Well into the 20th century garlic's reputation continued as "the poor man's treacle" or "the stinking rose." The upper class, especially, considered that its coarse flavor and scent made it something not to be eaten as the English author, diarist and horticulturalist John Evelyn (1620–1706) wrote in Acetaria: A Discourse on Sallets (1699):

...whilst we absolutely forbid it entrance into our salleting, by reason of its intolerable rankness, and which made it so detested of old that the eating of it was part of the punishment for such as had committed the horrid'st crimes. To be sure, 'tis not fit for ladies' palates, nor those who court them, farther than to permit a light touch on the Dish with a clove thereof... (Evelyn 1937, p. 18).

He acknowledged its use by "both Spaniards and Italians, and the more Southern people, familiarly eaten, with almost everything...." Since early medieval times the peoples of Provence, Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe had the right idea that using garlic to flavor sauces did wonders to enhance the staples of the diet such as meat, fish, potatoes and pasta. Recipes from these cultures include aioli, pesto and skorthalia, as well as finishing herbal blends like persillade and germolada, which are based on garlic. Remember that the longer garlic is cooked, the milder it becomes, so baked or roasted bulbs are creamy and have a subtle flavor. To counter garlic breath try chewing on cardamom or fennel seeds.

Ferdinand Bernhard Vietz (1772–1815), an Austrian physician, doctor of medicine at the University of Vienna and later a professor of forensic medicine there, produced this ten-volume compendium documenting the medicinal, culinary and decorative plants found in the Austrian pharmacopeia of the early 19th century. The thousand plates were engraved by the Viennese artist Ignaz Albrecht, who also completed the work upon Vietz's untimely death. In the entry on garlic, Vietz noted that in culinary matters garlic was in everyday use as a flavorful seasoning (Fig. 3).

Coriander/Cilantro—Is it a spice or an herb?

Anyone who doesn't recognize coriander (Coriandrum Linnaeus) might try its other name, cilantro. Generally, coriander refers to the ripe, seed-like fruits growing on short umbels, and cilantro means the bright green, finely cut leaves with their smelly, must-be-acquired taste. Of double morphology, the plant bears two different leaves and two different flowers. And when developed, its two useable parts bear no resemblance to each other in odors and flavors. The seeds have a sweet and citrus taste, and the leaves have a pungent and earthy taste.

Coriander has a long history, having been cultivated for over 3,000 years in the Mediterranean. The Romans took the herb to Britain and the rest of northern Europe where the ground seeds often were used in baked goods. The early settlers took these familiar seeds to the North American colonies, as did the Spaniards into Latin America, where the cilantro became part of Mexican, South American and Caribbean foods. It's also commonly used in North African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Thai and Chinese dishes. Cilantro is often called Chinese parsley.

In 17th-century New England the Puritans chewed coriander seeds to help them stay awake in church services and to suppress hunger. They not only brought familiar seeds but also familiar texts and family recipes, adjusting this information to the materials that were available in the New World. In Amelia Simmon's 1796 American Cookery (the first cookbook published in the United States), there is a recipe for a cookey made with:

one pound sugar boiled slowly in half pint water, scum (skim) well and cool, add two teaspoons pearl ash dissolved in milk, then two and a half pounds flour, rub in 4 ounces butter, and two large spoons of finely powdered coriander seed, wet with above; make rolls half an inch thick and cut to the shape you please; bake fifteen or twenty minutes in a slack oven—good [for] three weeks (Simmons and Wilson 1984).

This is one of the first cookbooks to recognize the use of pearl ash as a substitute for yeast as a leavening agent in baking (similar to the effect of today's baking powder). With an abundance of forests, pearl ash was widely available in American households and also was commonly used to make soap, scour wool and bleach cloth. Pearl ash (made from a salt from the ashes of plants) also became a tradeable commodity with Europe.

François Pierre Chaumeton (1775–1819) studied medicine in Paris, worked both as a surgeon and a pharmacist and was interested in natural history. His eight-volume Flore Médicale included the name of each medicinal plant in various languages, with detailed botanical descriptions and medicinal uses. Of the plates 404 were signed as being after originals by botanical artist Pierre-Jean-François Turpin (1775–1840), and another 20 after originals by Mme. Ernestine Panckoucke (?–1860). Most of the discussion of coriander focused on medicinal uses but included references to its use in food and liquor by the Egyptians, Spanish and Dutch (Fig. 4).

The Gart der Gesundheit was the German translation of the 1484 Herbarius Latinus, originally published by Peter Schoeffer, who inherited the type faces used by Johann Gutenberg (?1397–1468). His German edition in 1485 was one of the first European printed books on a scientific subject written in vernacular instead of in Latin. It was also one of the most extensive early printed works in German (Fig. 5).

Basil

Today almost everyone loves basil (Ocimum Linnaeus) however it smells: clove, lemon, lime, licorice or cinnamon—however it looks: tall, petite, flat, puckered, green or purple—however it is pronounced: BAYzihl, BHAzihl, BAHzihl, a noun often accompanied by the word sweet.

It is hard today to imagine that the use of this fragrant herb, so integral to Mediterranean and South Asian cuisine, was once reviled and thought dangerous for one's health. Pliny wrote that the Greek physician Chrysippus condemned it as "injurious to stomach and eyesight," adding that it caused "madness, lethargus and liver trouble" and that pounded ocimum covered by a stone bred scorpions. Attitudes were changing when it was introduced in England between 1548 and 1572 from India. John Parkinson in his Paradisi in Sole Paridisus Terrestris (1629) thought the few he described were useful garden plants to be used in sweet waters and nosegays but never mentioned a culinary use, and even John Evelyn wrote in Acetaria: A Discourse on Sallets (1699) that if it is not too strong it should be used sparingly in salads. Even though by the mid-18th century 50 varieties of basil were added to collections in England and France, it was as more of a curiosity.

If they only knew what an amazing flavor they were missing at the table. It was the Ligurians in the 15th century who brought the flavor of basil to new heights when they created pesto. A traditional recipe involves removing the stems and central veins of the basil leaves by tearing, placing them in a marble mortar and using a wooden pestle in a circular motion to crush the leaves with coarse salt and garlic. The color guides the addition of more basil. Next add pecorino or parmesan cheese, and as this is ground in with the rest add olive oil a drop at a time until the perfect consistency is obtained. Thoroughly crushed pine nuts are worked in at the end so that they are an indistinguishable part of the mixture.

A tomato dish without basil is unthinkable, but keep in mind that basil leaves are better torn than chopped and that they should be added at the last minute when used in cooked recipes.

The work shown here (Fig. 6) was a reissue of the second edition of Johannes Zorn's Icones Plantarum Medicinalium: Abbildungen von Arzenygewächsen (Nürnberg, 1784–1790), reproducing all 600 hand-colored, copper engravings and with text adapted for the Netherlands. The Latin descriptions were from the 13th edition of Systema Naturae by Carolus Linnaeus (also Carl von Linné, 1707–1778) and edited by Johann Friedrich Gmelin (1748–1804); the Dutch descriptions were from Natuurlijke Histoire by Maarten Houttuyn (1720–1798). Some authorities list the author of the text as Johannes Zorn (1739–1799), a Bavarian apothecary who traveled all over Europe to collect medicinal plants. No author was listed on the title pages; the prefaces were signed as follows: Dirk Leonard Oskamp (1768–?), vol. 1; Maarten Houttuyn (1720–1798), vol. 2; J. C. Krauss, vols. 3–6 (prefaces to vols. 3 and 6 signed by him, prefaces to vols. 4 and 5 unsigned). The information was strictly botanical, including when and where these medicinal plants could be found growing wild.

View Images

Common Fennel [Foeniculum Miller, Apiaceae alt. Umbelliferae], unsigned hand-colored engraving by Cornelius Heinrich Hemmerich Foeniculum or James Basire after an original by Timothy Sheldrake (fl.1734–1759) for his Botanicum Medicinale: An Herbal of Medicinal Plants on the College of Physicians' List ... Most Beautifully Engraved on 120 Large Folio Copper-Plates (London, Printed for J. Millan, [?1759], pl. 37), HI Library call no. DF5 S544B.