Fresh Rosemary

In Season, Ingredient
on July 14, 2011
Fresh Rosemary

Planting an herb garden (or plundering the farmers' market for the fragrant spoils) is even more romantic when you know the history of the prized culinary herb, rosemary.

A Mediterranean native, rosemary is an ancient symbol of fidelity and remembrance. In classical Greece, students wore rosemary garlands to boost their memory. In Rome, rosemary branches were placed in the hands of the dead. Because it grows wild along the sea, Romans called it ros marinus, or "sea spray"; it's present name evolved from association with the Virgin Mary and her floral symbol, the rose.

For centuries, it was held that a rosemary plant could grow no higher than 6 feet, the alleged height of Christ. After 33 years (the age of Christ when crucified), it might grow in girth, but never height—a contention belied by specimens measuring some 15 feet. As a sign of faithfulness, rosemary figured into weddings, evolved as a love charm, then morphed into a way to ward off evil spirits. Eventually, a robust rosemary bush was widely recognized as a sign that a woman ran the household. By the 16th century, husbands were doggedly pruning rosemary to make room for their blossoming egos.

In the Southern United States, rosemary is a perennial. Elsewhere, it's a seasonal luxury, unless you have a very sunny windowsill. Providing you clip no more than 20 percent of growth, you can harvest at will—and it's worth planting extra just to perfume the garden. Fresh rosemary leaves do wonders for lamb, chicken, pork and grilled vegetables. The woody branches make flavorful skewers and tasty additions to charcoal fires.

—By Jo Marshall, Creator of Cookcabulary