For thousands of years, humans have been adding herbs and spices to food in order to make dishes more appetizing and contribute a deep aromatic quality. But herbs and spices also have medicinal properties, making their use a handy way to add strengthening or healing effects to a dish. In fact, for millennia humans have been cultivating these plants for both pleasure and health.
The therapeutic virtues of garden sage, for example, are mentioned by Theophrastus, Pliny and Dioscorides, and the botanical name of its genus, Salvia, is derived from the Latin salvere, which means “to save” or “to heal”.
Traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants has been confirmed by the findings of researchers who have identified “blue zones” and “cold spots”. These are places where people live longer and better lives: areas around the world that have strikingly low incidence of cardiovascular disease, obesity and metabolic syndrome, diabetes, depression and other common Western ailments.
While Tuscany is not expressly a blue zone, it is part of the Mediterranean region, where several blue zones have been identified, and it shares with them evidence of healthier lives and a short list of common foods and culinary practices that contribute to good health, such as eating seasonally, consuming Omega-3 fatty acids or plant-based proteins, and liberal use of local herbs and spices.
Some of the most typical Tuscan erbe aromatiche are timo (thyme), salvia (sage), rosmarino (rosemary), semi di finocchio (fennel seeds, both the sweet and the wild kinds), anice (anise) and alloro (laurel leaf). These are a staple in most Tuscan family kitchens and are used in both savory and sweet dishes. For example, thyme is used in ribollita (bread soup), sage in the fagioli all’uccelletto (cannellini beans with tomato sauce), rosemary in the pandiramerino (rosemary sweet bun), wild fennel seeds in the ballotte (boiled chestnuts) or anise generously sprinkled over the schiacciata coll’uva (red grape flat cake).
As is often the case with traditional culinary habits, the healthy qualities of Tuscan erbe aromatiche were not searched for. Our ancestors were not aware of “phytonutrients”, plant nutrients, and their amazing powers. Yet, they quickly discovered that adding certain herbs to their foods was an effective way to get the best nutritional boost, while avoiding spoilage or adverse after meal reactions. For example, fennel seeds and anise have a “carminative” effect, preventing the formation of gas in the stomach and bowel or ease its passing. Fennel seed infusion is a traditional remedy for the colic in infants. When added to the water in which legumes are soaked and cooked, laurel (or bay) leaves greatly increase the nutrient availability of these foods while preventing gas and bloating. Sage and rosemary improve the digestion of rich and fatty foods. While the warming sharpness of thyme adds a unique twist to soups, its essential oils rich in antiseptic and expectorant properties are a useful ally in the treatment of common colds, upper respiratory tract inflammation and whooping cough.
All of these herbs of the Tuscan kitchen can be used to prepare fragrant herbal teas that can be enjoyed any moment of the day. Their volatile oils, flavonoids and phenolic acids provide beneficial many “anti-” qualities: anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial and, some even say, antidepressant properties, all packed in a small bunch of leaves. Alone or in combination, they can both soothe and reinvigorate.
It is easy and fun to grow herbs on a windowsill, balcony or small garden plot. But those who do not have the time, space or inclination to cultivate plants at home or who are cooking while traveling should follow some basic guidelines when buying herbs. If possible, avoid buying fresh herbs in bulk, as they do not last long. When buying dried herbs, never buy cardboard or low-barrier plastic packs as they allow the volatile oils to escape and oxygen to start deterioration of the herb. Store fresh herbs should in the refrigerator, wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel. Dried herbs should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place where they will keep fresh for several months.