Basil is an annual herb of the order Labiat. The popular name signifies royalty, probably because of the plant”s use in feasts. In France it is known as herb royale, or royal herb.
The plant is a native of tropical Asia, where, for centuries, especially in India, it has been highly esteemed as a condiment.
History of Basil
The plant”s introduction into England was in about 1548. During the reigns of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth farmers grew basil in pots and presented them with compliments to their landladies.
In America it has been cultivated somewhat for about a century, partly because of its fragrant leaves, which are employed in bouquets, but mainly for flavoring as a culinary herb.
It has become well-known anywhere French commerce or interests have penetrated. An African species is highly valued at the Cape of Good Hope for its perfume.
Description of Basil
Basil has branchy, leafy stems that grow to about one foot tall from small fibrous roots. The leaves are green, ovate, pointed, somewhat toothed and highly fragrant. The little white flowers, which appear in midsummer, are followed by small black fruits, popularly called seeds. These, like flaxseed, emit a sticky substance when soaked in water.
Like most of the other culinary herbs, basil has varied little in several centuries; there are no well-marked varieties of modern origin.
Like most herbs, growing basil requires a series of steps and close attention in order to grow and cultivate this culinary herb properly. Basil is propagated by very small seeds and these seeds are the beginning point for growth and must be treated with care.
- Basil seeds are best sown in flats under glass, covered lightly with finely sifted soil and moistened by standing in a shallow pan of water until the surface shows a wet spot.
- When about one inch tall, the seedlings must be pricked out two inches apart each way in larger-sized flats.
- When three inches tall the seedlings are large enough for the garden, where they should be set in rows 15 to 18 inches apart.
- Often the seed is sown in the spring due to the ease of working the ground.
- When transplanting, preference should be given to a sunny situation in a mellow, light, fertile, rather dry soil that is thoroughly well-prepared and as free from weeds as possible.
- The ground must be kept loose, open and clean. If the plants meet in the rows cultivation may stop.
- First gatherings of foliage should begin by midsummer when the plants start to blossom. Then they may be cut to within a few inches of the ground.
- The stumps should develop a second and even a third crop if care is exercised to keep the surface clean and open.
- For seed, some of the best plants should be left uncut. The seed should ripen by mid-autumn.
Cooking with Basil
Basil is one of the most popular herbs in the French cuisine. It is especially relished in mock turtle soup, which, when correctly made, derives its peculiar taste chiefly from the clove-like flavor of basil.
In other highly seasoned dishes, such as stews and dressings, basil is also highly prized. It is sometimes used in salads, such as Caprese salad, but not with much frequency.
The original and famous Fetter Lane sausages, formerly popular with Cockney epicures, owe their reputation mainly to basil. A golden yellow essential oil, which reddens with age, is extracted from basil leaves for uses in the kitchen, but is used most often in perfumes.
Kains, M.G. (1912). Culinary Herbs: Their Cultivation, Harvesting, Curing and Uses. Retrieved April 3, 2008, from the Project Gutenberg Web site: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21414/21414-h/21414-h.htm#Page_59.