Cultivate the sunny flavor of a Mediterranean hillside with this essential herb
Recipe: Mediterranean Chicken
Legend has it, the Greek goddess Aphrodite created aromatic oregano as a symbol of joy and grew it in her garden on Mount Olympus. Perhaps we should not be surprised that oregano was believed to bring happiness. After all, it seems to cure most everything. (One of the ancient Greek names for oregano was panakes or "all heal".)
Oregano (Origanum spp.) has played a significant role in medicine, cookery and cosmetics for thousands of years. Today, our love for this powerful herb continues, though primarily for its role in cooking; more than 300,000 tons of oregano are consumed each year in the United States alone. Yet, despite oregano’s popularity, most of us really know very little about the plant itself or its true flavor potential.
Knowing how to select and grow your own oregano brings rich rewards: When grown in the right conditions, oregano yields luxurious flavor—the essence of Mediterranean sun and sea—that is infinitely better than any you can buy in a jar.
The word "oregano" derives from the Greek oros (mountain or hill) and ganos (brightness or joy), probably alluding to the plants’ bright beauty in its hillside habitat. In addition to oregano’s association with Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, the herb is linked to the goddess Artemis, protector of childbirth. Artemis often was depicted wearing a crown of dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) and ancient Greek women also wore the wreaths during labor.
But the plant’s medicinal value is more than an ancient fable. Studies show that oregano is highly antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antiviral. In The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997), ethnobotanist James Duke, Ph.D., says oregano also contains at least seven compounds that can lower blood pressure.
The Origanum genus includes two different flavor groups used for cooking: mild-flavored sweet marjoram and Italian oregano, as well as the more spicy and pungent-flavored Greek oregano, Turkish oregano and Syrian oregano.
The compound carvacrol contributes the sharp, pungent flavor associated with culinary oreganos, as well as the plants’ antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial properties.
The secret to attaining the full flavor potential of any Origanum in your garden is to provide growing conditions similar to its Mediterranean homeland.
In the wild, oregano grows in chalky soil on rocky south-facing hillsides that would stress most other plants. So in your garden, treat oregano as a rock garden herb with low water requirements. To duplicate its preferred naturally chalky soil, add a little limestone to the soil or work it between the rocks where you intend to cultivate oregano. The soil should range from neutral to alkaline in pH (6.8 to 8.0) and be very well-drained—like the limestone outcrops where oregano naturally grows. Avoid heavy, poorly drained clay soils at all costs.
If you cannot provide these conditions in the garden, grow oregano in a pot. Remember that oregano has shallow roots, so you’ll need to water potted plants more often than those in the ground. Otherwise, this herb is practically carefree. Its leaves contain natural insecticides, so pests rarely are a problem.
Buy well-established oregano plants in pots. You can grow oregano from seed, but it’s difficult to do. (Of the thousands of Cypriot oregano seeds I sowed, only five grew and these plants lack the sweet, musky flavor of their parents.) Before you buy, pinch off a leaf and taste it. Oregano flavor can vary greatly from one plant to the next. If it tastes weak and grassy, take a pass—it probably will not taste any better once it’s established in your garden.
Oregano’s flavor also can change during the growing season. As a rule, the plant’s oils are more concentrated in summer, when its leaves are smaller and hairier, and lowest in fall. So plan to harvest your oregano in early summer, preferably right before the plant blooms. Once oregano flowers, the oils migrate to the top of the plant, which makes them better for perfumery or medicines because the oils are easier to recover. To harvest, cut back stems to no more than half their height so the plant can recover easily.
The easiest way to preserve oregano is to dry it. Spread the stems on paper towels atop cookie trays, then set the trays in a well-ventilated room away from direct sunlight. As soon as the leaves become brittle, put them in jars, seal tightly and store them away from light and heat.
Dried oregano is more concentrated in flavor than fresh (water in the leaves dilutes the oils), so use it sparingly. Too much oregano can quickly overpower the flavor of a dish and even cause vomiting, one of its many uses in ancient times. (A mild tea made with dried oregano, however, can help settle an upset stomach.)
Oregano’s original use in cookery was largely medicinal, due to its antimicrobial properties. Early cooks realized that oregano not only made good food taste better, but also made it healthier. Clearchus of Soli, an ancient writer from Cyprus, once remarked that when dry salt fish begins to spoil, a large quantity of marjoram would correct the problem.
The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides commented on the health benefits of combining oregano with onions or sumac. The latter spice mix—oregano and sumac berries, along with a few other ingredients—still is used today in Lebanon and Syria.
With Dioscorides in mind, I found a Baked Chicken with Oregano recipe (Kotopoulo me Rigani), which relies on the combination of onions and oregano for its character. The dish still is made in Crete’s country villages and taverns, but I would not be surprised if some ancient cookbook unearthed on the island would include this recipe as the first entry under "poultry."
William Woys Weaver is a food historian, cookbook author and contributing editor for Mother Earth News and Gourmet magazines. He gardens, cooks and writes from his home in southeastern Pennsylvania.
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