Friday, March 29, 2013

Basil - Basilic or Herbe Royal. Basil in French Cuisine.

from
Behind the French Menu
by
Bryan Newman
behindthefrenchmenu@gmail.com
Updated February 2019
   

Basilic or the  Herbe Royal  - Basil, or Sweet Basil.
Basil is also called Saint-Joseph's-wort, (NOT St John's-wort).
    
Basil is found in recipes all around the Mediterranean. There are many varieties of Basil available, and sweet basil with its uniquely pleasant taste and its smell of cloves makes it the most popular basil family member in Europe. Basil grows freely in the wild; nevertheless, most French chefs will be using the farmed variety in the country though the gatherers of wild mushrooms, ramasseurs, also gather wild herbs for those who appreciate their stronger taste and smell, and it is available in farmer’s markets.    Basil is used fresh in uncooked dishes where its flavor and aroma of cloves is important; also when basil is used in cooked dishes it must be added just before serving as cooked it quickly loses its flavor.
    
A wild basil flower.
www.flickr.com/photos/aecole/7756003178/
  
  
How Basil came to French cuisine.
  
Catherine De Medici, of Florence, married the French Prince Henry, (later King Henry II) and her royal entourage brought fruits, vegetables, new vines for grapes and recipes including those using Basil and other herbs; from then on Basil would become part of French cuisine. Basil originated in India and the variety we call sweet basil had reached France, before Catherine, when the Romans came to France more than one thousand years before. Sweet basil was a very important herb in Roman cuisine, and when Julius Caeser made France part of the Roman Empire in 52 BCE, they brought with everything they loved from home, and that included Basil and other herbs.  The trees they brought included figs, plums,  apples, pears, almonds, peaches, apricots, and cherries, while the vegetables included peas, celery, carrots, and asparagus. To ensure the wine would meet their tastes they brought new varieties of grapevines. Finally, to make sure their diet was like home they also brought along their favorite foods including snail farms with artificial rain to make the snails grow quicker, and the method of force-feeding geese for foie gras, fattened goose liver.  Of course, they brought many other unnecessary things such as roads and aqueducts, baths, and amphitheaters, so you may well ask what did the Romans ever do for France.

Italian pesto and the French pistou.

From listening to French chefs and looking at many recipes, it was clear to me that the only real difference in the recipes is in the spelling and pronunciation of the name.  The original pesto and pistou sauce recipes are exactly the same: finely crushed, fresh, sweet basil leaves with added garlic, salt, pepper, and virgin olive oil.  When later, newer versions of pesto and pistou were created they added pine-nuts and Parmesan cheese, with Gruyere cheese being a French option; though most French recipes also use Parmesan.
      
From looking at www.dictionary.com, you can see that words pistou and pesto both come from the same Latin word, pestare, meaning to grind or crush.  The crushing of fresh sweet basil leaves is, according to all the recipes the critical part in the preparation of a well-made pistou or pesto sauce.
   
Pestou or Pistou sauce?
www.flickr.com/photos/galant/1698712495/
    
Despite the paragraphs above indicating pesto's Italian origins when you do visit southern France, you will see that pistou is, by the locals, still considered a Provençal and or  Niçoise creation;  even though Nice was for hundreds of years, an Italian city.  Nice only became part of France 150 years ago, and when you visit Nice, you will see how Italian cuisine still influences many Niçoise recipes including the internationally famous Salade Nicoise.
       
Basil on the French menu.
       
The most popular basil variety in France is basilic, sweet basil, whether used for pistou or other dishes: however, basilic pourpre, purple basil, will be used for color, and also when a chef prefers its slightly sweeter clove aroma along with this herb's somewhat spicy flavor.
     
Your French menu may offer:
   
Carpaccio de Bœuf Parfumé au Pistou et Fleur de Sel Beef Carpaccio flavored with sauce pistou and fleur de sel.  Fleur de sel is a condiment made from mineral-enriched salt crystals that are hand-picked from drying sea salt.
  
Beef Carpaccio served with its traditional
mayonnaise-based sauce, basil, and Parmesan cheese shavings.
www.flickr.com/photos/fstorr/2095113099/
    
Coquilles Saint-Jacques Marinées à l'Huile d'Olive et au Citron, Pistou et Copeaux de Parmesan – King Scallops marinated in olive oillemon, pistou, and shavings of Parmesan cheese. In dishes like this one, the taste of olive oil used is tremendously important.

           
Filet d’Agneau, Émulsion de Courgettes au Basilic. – A lamb fillet served with a thick sauce made with courgettes, the USA zucchini, and basil. N.B. The French prefer their lamb rose, pink, and unlike steaks will rarely ask a diner how they would like their lamb cooked; if you want your lamb cooked a little more than rare tell the waiter!
  
Salade de Caprice.
The French take on the Italian Ensalata Caprese.
Tomatoes, Mozzarella cheese, baisl and olive oil.
Photograph courtesy of Alex Miranda 
www.flickr.com/photos/prunderground/7902422750/
    
Jambon de Parma et Tomates Cerises à l'Huile d'Olive Aromatisée au Basilic -  Cured Parma ham, prosciutto crudo, served with cherry tomatoes and flavored with olive oil and basil.
  
La soupe au Pistou.
www.flickr.com/photos/cuisinedemereenfille/2814599586/
    
Soupe au Pistou  - Pistou soup. A vegetable and noodle soup made with beans, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and vermicelli, angel hair pasta, to which pistou sauce will be added shortly before serving. Some versions of this soup are made with added smoked ham or lardons, salted or smoked bacon bits.
            
Despite the many Italian influences, there are also many uniquely French recipes that use basil, and basil is often on Provençal menus under its Occitan name Fabrego. Occitan is the language that lost out in the competition for a single language that would unite France; however, Occitan is still used or, at least well understood, alongside modern French, by many millions of French citizens.
   
The origin of the name Herbe Royale - The Royal Herb.
    
The second most popular French name for sweet basil is Herbe Royale, the royal herb; the origin of that name comes with many different traditions. The first tradition I heard relates to the Greek word basileus which means lord or the people’s leader. The most up to date tradition I have heard of connects basil to the mythical Basilisk, a serpent who could kill with a glance or a breath; shades of Harry Potter.
 
 Basilic Pourpre, Basilic Violet - Purple Basil
   
Purple basil
         
Sweet basil is grown in hothouses in the winter, and so it is available the year round. There are tens of different strains (cultivars) of Basil, and after Sweet Green Basil comes Purple Basil with its own group of cultivars.  Basilic Pourpre, Purple Basil is available fresh in France from March through May, and market gardeners also grow it in hothouses. Dried basil from both herbs are available in French supermarkets, but no chef would use dried basil as it has no flavor!
 
While Purple Basil adds a pleasant, slightly spicy flavor, along with its Basil signature aroma of cloves its primary use is decoration as together with green basil it adds color to a salad or other dish.
  
Wild fennel leaves with wild purslane, wild basil, and tomatoes.
www.flickr.com/photos/overthetuscanstove/14865715438/
 
Basil in French homeopathic medicine.    
Sweet basil is recommended as an anti-oxidant, a source of phosphorus and as an aid for indigestion.

Basilic or the  Herbe Royale - Basil, Common Basil or Sweet Basil in the languages of France’s neighbors:

(Catalan - alfàbrega), (Dutch - basilicum), (German - basilikum, basilienkraut), (Italian – basilico), (Spanish – albahaca), (Latin - ocimum basilicum).

Basilic Pourpre, Basilic Violet Purple Basil in the languages of France’s neighbors:
 
(Catalan - purpura alfàbrega), (Dutch - paarse basilicum). (German - dunkelrotes basilikum), (Italian- basilico viola), (Spanish – purpura albahaca), (Latin -  ocimum basilicum v. purpurascens)
    
Sacred Basil
    
When I have a question about herbs or spices one of the people I turn to is Gernot Katzer whose spice pages are a store of authoritative information with links to connected subjects.  The following paragraph relates to the original Basil called Sacred Basil or Tulsi.

Sacred Basil or Tulsi (ocimum tenuiflorum), is characterized by an intense sweet-camphoraceous fragrance.  In India, it is rarely used as a culinary herb, but it has a strong religious meaning, being sacred to Vishnu.  It is planted inside of Shiva temples, and many Hindus have a plant at the entry to their home, because of the herb’s auspicious connection with Lakshmi, the goddess of riches and good luck.
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Bryan G. Newman
 
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2013, 2014, 2019

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog write to Bryan Newman
at
 
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