The Great Rosemary Controversy…

I’ve finally tracked down Elizabeth David’s deeply fearful opinion of rosemary, a herb for which, I confess, I have considerable fondness. I remember reading it many years ago, but not where I read it – apparently it was in French Provincial Cooking, which I’m currently dipping into at random of an evening.

This is what she says:-

“ROSEMARY: A beautiful plant with a powerful aromatic scent, which must be used in cooking only with the utmost care. When rosemary leaves come into contact with heat, they give out a very strong and rather acrid tasting oil, so they should never be added to any stock which is destined to become a consommé or a jelly. Sprigs of rosemary are often used to flavour roast veal and grilled fish but should always be removed before the dish is served, for they spell ruination to every other flavour if you get the spiky little leaves in your mouth.”

Well, I’m sorry, but at the risk of infuriating Ms David’s shade, that’s rubbish. I have no doubt, having lived in continental Europe, she had easy access to the fresh herb, while those in England were often saddled with dried at the time, and yet what she describes doesn’t even come close to my experience of it. Take the “spiky little leaves” reference. The leaves are (relatively), long and narrow, but spiky they are not, at all (though I can imagine that the dried leaves are spiky). She’s not alone though – years ago a food writer for the Observer, erm, observed, that while one could use a sprig of rosemary for basting food on the barbecue, in lieu of a brush, nothing more adventurous should be considered even for a moment.

True, it is rather more assertive than, say, parsley, but how David can claim, given her fondness for garlic and horseradish, either of which pretty much defines “dominant,” that rosemary is so overwhelming I really don’t know. As for the “strong and rather acrid tasting oil” no, never encountered that and, trust me, when I use rosemary, I use a lot. I also freeze it in olive oil (protects it from freezer burn), and if it were going to give off acrid oil, it would do it then, when freezing breaks down its cellular structure. It certainly doesn’t do it when cooking with it.

The only thing I can think of to explain this disparity is that there is more than one strain of Rosmarinus officinalis, so off I went to Google, and pitched up on the Royal Horticultural Society’s website and, sure enough, they list 6 different strains.

However, as the RHS is unconcerned with matters culinary, there is no information as to how each tastes – which is a pity – or even which is the most commonly cultivated commercially (or are there yet other strains for that?).

Apparently, yes there are! Wikipedia lists 21 cultivars as “commonly sold” and says there are yet more, so figuring out which strain, or strains, so offended Elizabeth David so long ago is quite impossible.

But at least I got a blog post out of it!


5 thoughts on “The Great Rosemary Controversy…

  1. I’ve got to admit that I am not a lover of rosemary, or indeed any herbs. I like to enjoy the taste of the food, rather than the taste of sauces or suchlike.
    I’m a good old plain food eater – but also one who doesn’t like food!!! I’m strange I know, but hey, who isn’t?
    When we used to go out for dinner to a restaurant, I’d be the only one in the place that would order a steak, well done and with no sauce, gravy, herb etc on it.
    I have house-rabbits, and they like some herbs, but rosemary is not one of them, along with dill or basil. When I do their veggies for them I detest getting the coriander on me – yuck and shudder! The taste of that herb is disgusting but the buns love it, along with parsley, so I have to put up with it.

  2. We also love Rosemary, both the taste and the aroma.

    Whenever we pass a Rosemary plant in someone’s garden, we have to gently bruise a twig or two in the palm of our hand, just to get the smell on our hand!

  3. well. i’m only just learning about these things. at 71 would you……. in my hay day of cooking , when the kids were little -to teens etc. good plain cooking that stuck to your ribs (and your hips in most cases) was the order of the day in my house as it had been in my mums.
    my last long term partner was a fried food man, which i refused to cook for him as i am not a lover of such stuff. a fried egg now and again maybe (AND I MEAN ONCE A BLUE MOON) i might cook.(plus the fat splashes ruined so many of my clothes, he didn’t care if i had no decent ones as long as he got his fried food.) but anyway that’s the only fried food i will cook. so my cooking skills went downhill as i lived on sandwiches and cornflakes for around 5 years or more. then when i finally started living on my own & was able to cook what i wanted, my skills had disappeared along with my ability to stand for long periods of time etc. or chop veggies. so i resorted to ready meals.could write a book on the merits of those. finally, thanks to Ron, i developed an urge to start cooking again. but within my own followed his advice and bought a slow cooker. and (not his advice but seen while hunting for said cooker,) an electric egg boiler.and a one cup kettle thingy where you only have to lift a cup/mug of hot liquid rather than a kettle full. all are brilliant for me.can set egg boiler at night then just switch on and in a couple of minutes it buzzes and you have your breakfast. boiling a pan of water on an electric stove,specially a solid plated one , is a no no when you get up starving hungry. so easy to just set the egg boiler up night before n flick the switch….perfect boiled eggs every time.
    as for herbs, i go by what Ron says, initially,then decide if i like or not. have a rosemary bush in a pot outside my door. no idea how i got it. just noticed this wee thing growing in a pot a few years ago that i was just about to empty of old compost. had an idea it was rosemary so left it. its now about 18 inches tall.
    question for Ron. is there any specific time to pick the leaves or can you pick them any time of the year? i know it flowers so maybe has to be done after that????
    plus an observation. the knorr stock pots you like??? tried them,. not keen/ had a bit of a sweet taste to them,?>??not like by me in stews or casseroles i am afraid. but each to his own eh?

    • Take the rosemary indoors and nurse it through the winter on a sunny window-ledge – come spring, plant it out in a sunny spot. Rosemary is hardy, and when mature can stand up to a normal winter – yours is a bit small right now and this winter is supposed to be hard.

      Bushy herbs are at their best on hot, sunny days, so pick and freeze then. Strip the leaves from the stalk, and put in the bottom of a freezer bag. Pour in plenty of olive oil – squish it so all the leaves are well coated, shape into a sausage, and freeze. Cut a lump off, and chop as needed.

      Knorr stock pots – don’t think that was me – mostly I find them too salty. I use Kallo organic veg cubes, Marigold veggie stock powder, and Knorr Touch of Taste concentrate in Beef and Chicken flavours. The veg version is horrible.

      • ah that must be the reason then./ i got the wrong Knorr product…
        the rosemary indoors for winter is not an option as i have nowhere to put it. i tend to forget to water indoor plants too. its survives outdoors thru all weathers including 4/5 inches snow last year. as for planting it out. maybe it should go in the centre of the front garden and train it into a nice shape, ball or something…. though i will have to find someone willing to dig a hole n plant it. ive not been able to dig for a number of years, hence the pots. or bushes that were already in from my gardening days. not easy to find anyone to do my garden at reasonable rates. just been quoted £90 to lop 6 inches off my side gate that is a replacement to keep my dog in. a neighbour made it.. very rough (and to me a danger if i have to reach over it to retrieve me mail from the postbox situated over the other side, just inside the open shed of the wheelie bin. only necessary if icy on path.but might as well buy new as pay that. told the man it was too heavy, too big too tall when he did it. but wouldnt have it. now fallen out with me cos i refused to use him as a taxi. long story, but i have my own life and dont want him knowing everywhere i go then commenting on he was wont to do. grrr.
        so need gardener. lol …mmmm maybe could put it in bathroom/ that way it will get watered every time i have a

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