Cooking with Seasonal Savory

Add a fresh peppery flavor to your favorite dishes with summer and winter savory.

| October/November 1997

Winter and Summer Savory: Both these are so well known, (being entertained as constant Inhabitants in our Gardens) that they need no description.
—Nicholas Culpeper,
17th-century English herbalist

Savory Runner Bean SoupGreen Beans with Summer Savory

Both winter savory (Satureja montana) and summer savory (S. hortensis) are popular among herb gardeners today, but they are not as widely used as they could and should be. So tasty are they when paired with beans and other legumes that both species are referred to as “the bean herb”. In France, where they grow in abundance in the foothills and mountains of Provence, they are known as poivre d’âne (donkey’s pepper) and pebre d’ail (garlic pepper). Savories flavor many dishes and also contribute to the delightful, variable blend called herbes de Provence, which also usually includes marjoram, thyme, and lavender.

Winter savory is a shrubby hardy perennial growing 6 to 12 inches high and wide, with a tasty, hot bite to its thick, glossy green, lance-shaped leaves and white flowers. Summer savory is a slender annual, growing from 1 to 11/2 feet tall on reddish branched stems, with narrow, pointed, dark green leaves containing a milder resinous heat and pale pink to white flowers strewn like pinpoints over the foliage. The leaves acquire an attractive purplish tinge in late summer.

History and folklore

Summer savory is native to the Mediterranean basin of southern Europe, and winter savory, as its species name, montana, implies, to the mountains of southern Europe and North Africa. Savory, along with chervil, coriander, dill, garlic, and parsley, was on the emperor Charlemagne’s list of seventy-eight tasty herbs to be grown in his royal gardens in a.d. 812. The Romans used winter savory as we use pepper today, and it is said that they introduced the herb to England. Medieval walled gardens held savory, hyssop, and parsley in company with beans, onions, leeks, and garlic; the herbs must have gone a long way to punch up the monotonous, plain, starch-filled diet of the poor as well as lend a robust tang to the meatier diet of the rich. Savory also grew in herb “gardens of delight” kept by the leisured rich, and it was used in sweet syrups and conserves to soothe the throat. Several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century garden writers suggest savory as a component of a fragrant garden.

In garden folklore of the Middle Ages, a garland fashioned of savory leaves and flowers was worn as a crown or cap to revive the wearer from drowsiness. The satyrs of Greek mythology—lascivious woodland deities with the horns, ears, and legs of a goat—also were depicted wearing crowns of savory. Because of this, savory’s generic name, Satureja, has been linked with the word “satyr”, but apparently it is actually derived from the Latin satur, meaning “full” or “satiated”. Both savories were believed to affect the sex drive, but in opposite ways: winter savory was thought to decrease it, summer savory, to increase it. Which kind do you suppose the satyrs wore?

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