"This is the herb which all authors are together by the ears aboute and rail at one another like lawyers"
§ Home § Search § FoodTales § Any comments?
Aka "herb royal" and "basilica," this member of the mint family originated in India, called tulasi, and was sacred to the Hindu Gods Krisha and Vishnu. It is traditionally placed on the breast of a dead Hindi. Its current name derives from the Greek basileus, meaning "king." In fact, however, ancient Greek and Roman physicians considered it a symbol of hostility and insanity and believed it could only be grown if its seeds were sown amid curses. Likewise, its association with scorpions. Pliny claimed that when it was pounded by a stone, it would transform itself into them, a fairly frightening thought to pesto aficionados.
By contrast, Europeans during the Middle Ages believed it could only be cultivated by a beautiful woman--and it was commonly given and received as a token of romantic love.
Witness the gothic poem by John Keats, based on Boccaccio's morbid story in The Decameron (Fourth Day, Fifth Tale). Here it is that a pair of social climbing Florentine brothers disapprove of their sister's lower born lover Lorenzo--and kill him, burying his body in the forest. Sister Isabella is told he has gone away, but one night she sees Lorenzo in a dream, and he reveals his terrible fate. She sets off with her old nurse, finds the grave, digs him up, and brings his severed head back home to bury in a pot of basil. Watering it with her tears,
Eventually, the brothers catch on--and flee Florence, taking the basil away from Isabel at the same time. Poor thing. Of course she goes mad and dies.
Certainly unrelated to this story, basil has, from time immemorial, had a reputation for soothing stomach aches and cramps--and assisting digestion. From whence its flavor? The leaves are dotted with tiny oil cells that contain anethole (like anise), estragole (like tarragon), eucalyptol, eugenol (like cloves and allspice), and linalool (like French lavender).