If there is one thing that conjures up the taste of Italy, it is the aroma of fresh herbs – ‘erbe aromatiche fresche’. No self-respecting Italian nonna would be without her ‘mazzetto aromatico’ or bouquet garni when making her delicious sauces. And when you can make your own using herbs you have grown yourself – what could be fresher?
We’ve put together some of our top tips for growing, sowing & cooking some of the most common Italian herbs: basil (‘basilico’), oregano (‘origano’), sage (‘salvia’), mint (‘menta’) and thyme (‘timo’). Each has its own unique qualities, and each will add an extra dimension to your cooking.
Growing Herbs: Top Tips
As for growing these herbs, it couldn’t be easier. The best part? You don’t need a big garden; herbs will grow happily in pots on a windowsill in your kitchen.
- Sow in heat in March or outside in May
- Plant 9 inches apart
- Sun is essential, as is regular watering. Keep pinching the tops & cut when flowers begin to appear
- Top tip – dig up in September and keep alive in a greenhouse to provide fresh leaves in winter
- Prefers a moist & sunny position but will grow anywhere
- Hates drought!
- Sow seeds in Spring
- Cut for drying in August before flowers appear
- Needs well-drained soil & a sunny, sheltered spot
- Sow seeds in May
- Pick regularly & prune in Spring
- Prefers sunny, well-drained soil
- Propagate by dividing existing plants in March, April or June
- Keep well-cut in June and August for drying
- Encourage growth by nipping shoots in early Autumn
- Hardy and will grow anywhere but likes semi-shade & a damp position
- Plant in a large plastic or metal pot as it spreads rapidly!
- Propagate by cutting in February and March
- Plant 30cm apart in a well-drained sunny spot in Spring
- Pick leaves as required – they can be picked all year round!
- If you don’t have a garden, these will grow happily in a pot on the windowsill
Herbs in La Cucina
Basilico is one of the most fragrant of fresh herbs - a scattering of freshly torn leaves on a tomato and mozzarella salad will give you your very own ‘Insalata Caprese’.
Origano is a staple of Southern Italian and Sicilian cooking. Why not dry your own and scatter over a homemade pizza to add extra freshness & give it that authentic taste?
The name of the herb Salvia derives from the Latin for health. It is the key ingredient in one of the most iconic pasta sauces ‘burro e salvia’ – butter and sage. Why not try your hand at making your own butter sauce with the help of our Head Chef Roberta.
Menta is a key feature of Roman cuisine but why not try it with balsamic vinegar as a dressing to go with 'prosciutto e melone’? Mint is of course also the perfect partner for lamb; we like pairing it with a slow-roasted lamb ragù, or added to breadcrumbs to form a fragrant, crunchy pasta topping.
Timo is a real all-rounder and is a great accompaniment to roast and grilled food. We particularly like it scattered over olive oil drizzled crispy roast potatoes. We’re also quite partial to a drizzle or two of thyme butter when making our own fresh tortelloni.
Making the Most of Your Herbs
You can never have too many fresh herbs. But if you do, why not chop them up, add a little water and freeze them as ice cubes. In summer, add them to a cold tipple or two – a sprig of mint in a glass of Pimm’s or a torn leaf of basil in a gin & tonic or mojito. A sprig of thyme makes for a fragrant and delicate spritz garnish. Then, in the cold winter months, enjoy a taste of summer by adding a cube to your soups and sauces.
Finally, don’t forget the health benefits of herbs which have been recognised for centuries. As the old Italian proverb goes:
‘A tavola non s’invecchia’: At the table, one does not grow old.
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