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!