Saucy, Basil? Other than I like it, I don’t know too much about it. – Pestoed
Basil is a member of the mint family and according 5 different books, all published within the last 10 years, each dependable, claim basil originated in Turkey or possibly Iran or definitely India and probably Africa. Although the herb has been collected and cultivated for over 5,000 years, it has only been within the last 30 years the herb has become known outside the Mediterranean. It is quickly on its way to being the most popular herb on the planet and might be if the metric is the value of crop rather than acreage culitvated.
Basil is best fresh, while some herbs notably oregano remain pungent after being dried, basil doesn’t hold up especially well. Actually, it dries fine in the physical sense but its flavors dissipate in the drying process - leaving a bland to grassy flavor with little of the fresh variety’s noticeable character. For storing bumper crops, some recommend blanching the herb in simmering water before freezing it - the Saucykitchen skips that step preferring to chop and adding to olive oil before freezing. For pure basil flavor: Infuse chopped leaves in vodka. An idea that isn’t all that original, the liqueur Chartreuse, employs basil for some of its color and flavor.
Preservation techniques aside; the herb is best used, really, really fresh - within minutes of chopping or if you are a purist, ripping or pounding. When the leaf’s cells are broken open that its aroma; that anisey, sweet, fresh aroma escapes. The flavor is comprised of some of the same flavors as with cherries, linalool and eugeneol - clove the flavor up; while eucalyptol, the same compound that flavors laurel/bay leaf rounds out the palate. And of course these flavors apply to Ocimum basilicum, more commonly called sweet or Italian/Genovese Basil. Not to the Thai, Holy, Cinnamon or Lemon basil that are favored in SE Asia.
Asian basil is used extensively in Thai, Vietnamese, Lao and Indonesian cuisines. All are a little different in taste and flavor but basils used in Asian cooking are generally thought to be bolder: Thai Basil is a cultivar of Ocimum basilicum. Holy Basil, sometimes Thai Holy Basil occasionally Kra phao or it you are Vietnamese húng quế, comes from the Ocimum tenuiflorum variety. While Lemon Basil, so named for its strong lemon flavor, has narrower leaves and is a cross Ocimum basilicum and O. americanum.
St. Basil, 4th Century monk, bishop, theologian and raging anti-simoniac seems to be named after his father rather than the plant. Basil’s heart shaped leaves have long been linked to romantic love – historically the Romans and now the Italians, see a love connection in the leaf’s shape. Greeks, or at least Greek Orthodox Priests, use basil to prepare holy water. Also in that tradition, historically women were forbidden from picking it at all and not allowed to cook with it when they are menstruating (no word on who policed this). Possibly the herb was once the reserve of the ruling class; basilikos, translates as royalty. In the western cannon, basil is most commonly served as pesto, from the Italian pestare – crush/pound. Across the sea and France, basil is served ala pistou in Provence, which probably not so coincidentally means pound. Some gardeners claim tomatoes and basil grow well together; the perfume of the basil is thought to keep pests away. I’m no pest, but the stink of a tomato leaf is more than enough to keep me at bay…whether that assertion could survive the Mythbusters gardening show is speculative, but recent studies have found basil’s scent deters mosquitoes - amazing because they aren’t slowed down by the napalmy sweet smell of OFF.