Kate asked me about why I chose this title for the Blog. To be honest, I think the main motive was a bit of shit-stirring, and a need to eschew any hint of cutesy domesticity. But dried basil? Maligned bogeyman of the spice rack? Here are a few thoughts.
It doesn’t have many fans. No less an institution than the BBC politely says, “Dried basil retains little of the aroma and flavour of fresh basil, so is of limited use in the kitchen.” Saint Nigel says it’s only fit for the bin.
As a result, we have supermarkets full of fresh basil. There are hermetically sealed plastic of leaves and little pots (some hydroponic) of the plant itself, all year ’round; air freighted when necessary. The leaves are neat, orderly, and strangely pale. And the taste? Curiously bland, with an unpleasant bitterness, and no aroma at all. Egged on by certain celebrity chefs, people buy this stuff, and proceed to cook the crap out of it, to the point where they might as well have used spinach. This is missing the point.
Go to a proper Italian deli – even in London there are only three I trust – and maybe – just maybe – you’ll find The Real Thing. Chances are you’ll smell them before you see them – a waft more heavenly than the finest incense, and there they are. Small, unsealed plastic bags of slightly bruised, slightly wonky leaves. Leaves of the darkest murkiest green. Often there’ll be punnets of dark red, slightly mangy tomatoes: tomatoes that don’t look quite respectable, unlike their uniform cousins in Tesco. This is the Real Deal. Don’t cook this at all, just grab the tomatoes, some buffalo mozarella, pugliese bread, prosciutto, and make a pig of yourself. Every now and again, there will be a glut, and you can get a kilo of the stuff. Make some pesto.
Dried basil will never be any good for pesto or bruschetta. (That’s broos-ketta, by the way, not brooshetter.) Dried basil is a different beast altogether. It’s sharp and musty; with a hint of aniseed. You don’t need a lot, and you can cook it vigorously. Its place is in pungent sauces, soups, and ragù that peacefully simmers on the hob all afternoon. It’s not a primary element, just a zesty backnote in the palette, which probably features dried oregano or marjoram. It doesn’t last more than a few months in the jar, so don’t hang on to it for so long that it just smells like mothballs.
Just like mint – where the fresh stuff is for desserts and the dried stuff is for curries – we have two completely different ingredients. Use them wisely.
(Aside: my parents bought a spice rack in 1978, complete with jars of spices, all pre labelled and pre filled. I’m fairly sure some of those jars had their original contents when we moved house in 1984. If your spice rack is like this, then just throw the whole accursed lot out. Out, I say, out.)