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The word Basil is derived from the Greek basileus, meaning "king," although to the ancient Greeks and Romans the herb was a symbol of malice and lunacy. They believed that to successfully grow basil, one had to yell and curse angrily while sowing the seeds. In French, semer le basilic, "sowing basil," means ranting.
In other cultures the herb is associated with love rituals. In Eastern Europe it was assumed that a man would love the woman from whose hand he accepted a sprig of basil. In Italy, when a woman placed a pot of basil on her balcony, it meant that she would be receptive to her lover.
When two lovers place two basil leaves into a fire and the leaves are immediately consumed, it signals that the relationship will be harmonious. If the leaves pop and sizzle, there will be some quarrelling, and if the leaves crackle fiercely and fly apart, the relationship is doomed.
Basil has traditionally been given as a good-luck present to new homeowners.
This is possibly why a modern custom has developed which maintains that
basil will attract customers to a place of business if a sprig of the
herb is placed in the cash register.
Basil likes full sun in well-drained soil that contains well-rotted manure or good compost, but unlike other herbs it can't tolerate drought. Mulching will help maintain soil moisture, but be careful not to mulch until the soil is warm. Once flourishing, cut every stem of the herb back to the second set of leaves and don't allow it to flower. You will be rewarded with ongoing basil all summer.
Basil is primarily a culinary herb. It has antibacterial and antiviral properties, but it is not an important herb for modern clinical herbalists. However, as a member of the mint family, basil is recommended as a digestive aid and an after dinner cup of basil tea makes a healthier alternative to the after dinner mint.
There are countless species of basil - the current Richters' catalogue lists 37 - but the enduring winner in the kitchen is Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum), with its close relative Genovese Basil being preferred for pesto.
The lemon basils, with their citrus tang, including the 1998 All-American winner "Sweet Dani," are excellent for desserts, soups, tea, lemonade and for cooking with fish and chicken.
Cinnamon Basil does not cook well, but contributes an interesting piquancy to stewed tomatoes. Thai basil, with its pronounced anise-licorice aroma and flavour - especially the 1997 All-American winner "Siam Queen" - is excellent with green curries and stir-fry dishes.
The best decorative basils are African Blue - which can grow to shoulder height, but has a strong camphor like aroma making it unpleasant in food - and Opal Basil, with its dark, purplish leaves. The latter can be used for cooking and is particularly good in herb vinegar as the condiment takes on a splendid red hue. Grow either in your herb garden alongside calendula. The yellow-purple contrast is very striking.
SPINACH & BASIL SOUP
Sauté the onion in the olive oil until translucent. Lightly steam the spinach with just the water clinging to the leaves and add to a pot with the cooking liquid, sautéed onion, basil leaves and herb or vegetable bouillon. Cover and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes, and then add the milk, cheese, garlic (crushing the garlic is unnecessary as it's bound for the blender), cayenne and nutmeg.
Puree the soup in batches in a blender, then return to the pot, re-heat
and add salt to taste. Serve hot.
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