Greece maintains the ideal climate for growing herbs – hot and sunny. Herbs are found in abundance, flourishing on mountain sides, where they grow naturally. When taking a stroll through Greece’s outstanding country side, it’s difficult not to crush the wild carpet of herbs underfoot; they grow so profusely giving the air an aura unique to Greece.
The herbs found in Greece today are the same herbs gathered thousands of years ago in ancient Greece. Their uses – not only to flavor delicious Greek cuisine but also for medicinal purposes – have remained unchanged. Hippocrates, great Greek physician, father of medicine wisely said: “Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food.”
Many herbs resemble each other in flavor, aroma, and in appearance. Greeks, through experience and knowledge handed down from generation to generation, know what they are looking for when going out to the fields collecting various herbs for tasty Greek dishes.
All over Greece, especially in the villages, a common sight is a Greek mama with her plastic bag and a knife bent over searching for the best horta, a wild leafy green plant that grows everywhere, even along the sides of busy roads. It comes in different species, all edible and equally flavorful, delicious in salads or boiled and served with golden olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper.
Some of the main herbs found growing naturally in Greece, including some details of their history and uses:
- Name: The word comes from the Greek basileus, meaning king. Basil is known as king of herbs.
- Ancient Greece and myth: Basil is said to have first grown on the original cross of Christ. Even though it represented hatred to the ancient Greeks they placed it in the hands of the dead to endure them a safe journey to the afterlife and to make sure the gates of heaven opened for them. A practice was to hang it on a door, or by an entrance, to bring good luck and wealth.
- Characteristics: Rich spicy flavor.
- Culinary uses: Basil is always added at the last minute in cooking to retain all its flavors. Basil became popular in Greek cuisine only in the last century. Basil, full of vitamins and an antioxidant, enhances the taste of tomatoes perfectly. In fact, it is said, “Basil and tomatoes are best friends.”
- Name: In Greek, the word chamomile means apple of the ground, so called for its fresh apple scent and its low-growing nature.
- Ancient Greece and myth: Hippocrates was the first to mention chamomile and recommended it for purification, protection, and to fight colds.
- Medicinal uses: Chamomile tea is well known for its properties as a sedative, relaxant, sleep, and stomach disorders.
- Ancient Greece and myth: Its main use in ancient times was medicinal. It was popular as a wound healer and for burns. It was said to promote sleep if placed over the eyes before going to bed. Dill was made into crowns at victory celebrations for returning heroes and was also used in ancient times to flavor wine.
- Culinary uses: In fresh green salads and in spanokopita (spinach pie).
- Name: The Greek name for fennel is marathon, taken from the place Marathon where the Greeks defeated the Persians (49 BC), in a battle said to have taken place in a field covered with fennel.
- Ancient Greece and myth: Ancient Greeks believed fennel promoted endurance and longevity.
- Characteristics: Fennel is similar to dill in looks but its taste has distinct anise flavor.
- Culinary uses: Today it is used to flavor savory foods.
- Ancient Greece and myth: In ancient times marjoram was placed on graves to help fill the final resting place with eternal happiness and peace. A symbol of happiness and love, it was made into wreaths and given to newlywed couples to ensure happiness and love.
- Characteristics: Marjoram is a close relative of oregano, with a slightly more delicate flavor.
- Culinary uses: in soups, stews, meat, fish, and sprinkled on salads.
- Name and myth: A Greek myth has mint being named after Minthe, a water nymph who drew the attention of Hades, god of the underworld. When Persephone, his wife, learnt of this she turned Minthe into an herb.
- Characteristics: Greek mint is of a superior quality, both aroma and flavor, owing to the rich soil and the warm temperatures of Greece.
- Culinary uses: Mint is used in many Greek dishes.
- Medicinal uses: Mint is excellent as tea for indigestion, nerve disorders, dizziness, sore throats, coughs, headaches, and insomnia.
- Ancient Greece and myth: In ancient Greece, it was believed to encourage good luck and good health and symbolize joy. Oregano was planted near homes to ward off evil spirits. When worn on the head during sleep it encouraged psychic dreams.
- Culinary uses: Oregano is maybe the most commonly used herb in Greek cuisine: in soups, stews, with meat and fish, and, of course, no Greek horiatiki salad worth its salt, is without oregano.
- Name: The botanical name is petroselinum, the Greek word for stone, as it grows on rocky hillsides.
- Ancient Greece and myth: Ancient Greeks associated parsley with death. It was supposed to have sprung from the blood of Archemorous whose name meant forerunner of death. It was never used in ancient Greek cuisine. Early Greeks made crowns from parsley, for the victors of the Nemean and Isthmian games.
- Culinary uses: Very little does not benefit from parsley: sauces, stews, cheese, fish, and, of course, as a garnish.
- Name: The Latin word for rosemary rosemarinus means dew of the sea as it is said the plant emerged, alongside Aphrodite (Venus) when she rose from the sea.
- Ancient Greece and myth: Ancient Greek students wore wreaths of rosemary to aid memory.
- Characteristics and uses: A member of the mint family.
- Culinary uses: Rosemary goes particularly well with roast meat, especially lamb.
- Medicinal uses: Rosemary is thought to be an antiseptic to purify blood and is beneficial in asthma and breathing problems as well as relieving headaches and indigestion.
Sage (Latin Salvia) (Faskomilo)
- Name: Greek physicians praised sage so much that it inspired the Romans to name it salvia, meaning saving lives.
- Ancient Greece and myth: Ancient Greeks said sage warded off death and brought about immortality or a long and healthy life.
- Characteristics: Sage is quite a strong-tasting pungent herb.
- Culinary uses: Sage is used primarily with mild bland tasting foods.
- Medicinal uses: Sage is thought to lower cholesterol, enhance memory, and soothe skin irritations and inflammation.
- Ancient Greece and myth: In Ancient Greece thyme was known as a source of courage. It was used as incense and infusions for bathing and to flavor liqueurs and cheese. Placed beneath a pillow in sachets it was said to aid sleep and ward off nightmares. Women gave it to warriors before they headed off into battle. It was placed on coffins to ensure a safe passage into the afterlife.
- Characteristics: Thyme is one of the few herbs, which retains all its flavor when dried.
- Culinary uses: Thyme is one of the herbs used in bouquet garni, a bundle of herbs tied together and used to flavor savory dishes.
- Medicinal uses: Oil of thyme is an effective mouthwash and antiseptic. As a tea, it helps coughs and bronchitis.
Tilio, Sideritis, Mountain Tea.
- Name: The name is derived from the word iron, sideron.
- Ancient Greece and myth: In ancient time it was used to heal wounds caused by iron weapons such as arrows and swords. Hippocrates prescribed it as a tonic.
- Culinary uses: it is one of the most popular herbal teas in Greece.