My friend Basil

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Valentino basil

I don't think I could ever live without Basil - the herb, I mean. I can't remember when I first tasted it (I certainly don't recall it when I was growing up) but once I had sampled that unique flavour, I was hooked for life. Tomatoes and basil are a match made in culinary heaven, and basil pesto has to be one of my favourite foods. It is indispensable in Italian cooking, as well as being used in many South-East Asian dishes. Just the mere smell of a crushed leaf can make me go weak at the knees. I didn't start growing it myself until a few years ago, but nowadays, planting basil seeds indoors in late winter is a ritual that I look forward to every year.

I sow the seed in late August, so that by the time the weather has warmed up sufficiently, the basil is ready to be transplanted outside. Generally, basil is regarded as a 'tender' herb: in other words, it hates cold weather and only grows through the warmer months. Most forms of basil are annual plants, hailing from tropical Asia, Africa and Central and South America. After wonderfully lush growth throughout summer and autumn, the plants gradually lose their vigour, the leaves blacken as winter approaches, and the plant dies off.

I keep my tubs of basil inside a mesh cage

There are a number of different varieties of this annual basil (Ocimum basilicum), including the generic 'sweet basil' which is the one we buy bunches of at the greengrocer; other varieties include those marketed as 'Valentino' or 'Lettuce Leaf', which have huge leaves; purple-leaved forms, such as 'Dark Opal' and 'Purple Ruffles'; and Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Horapha'), which can't really be substituted for sweet basil, being much more clove-scented. Greek basil (Ocimum minimum) is a separate species; the plant has tiny leaves and a more compact form. Annual basil loves rich soil, water, fertiliser and sun. It grows about 30 to 60 cm tall. I find it best to grow it in a large tub. In my garden, basil is a martyr to the dreaded flea beetle, which disfigures and eventually ruins the foliage, so I place my tubs inside a wooden cage covered with a very fine mesh, which effectively excludes the beetles (as well as moths and butterflies, whose caterpillars also will defoliate basil very quickly, snails and aphids).

Another important aspect of basil culture is to nip out any flowering stems that develop, as these seem to weaken the plant, with all its energy being directed to seed-production if they are allowed to remain on the plant. Regular tip-pruning will help create a shrubby plant and often obviate the development of flowering stems.

There is much folklore associated with basil. It is said to repel flies - even fruit flies - and mosquitoes; it is also said to 'clear the brain and relieve headaches', as well as to be a digestive tonic if the leaves are mixed with red wine - though I have never personally any of tested these theories. Basil has religious significance in some cultures (particularly holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum).

Basil grown as a microgreen crop

Attempts to preserve basil so as to have it available through winter generally produce substandard results - dried basil doesn't taste much like the fresh herb, nor do chopped leaves frozen in ice blocks, as is sometimes suggested, though they can be useful in casseroles. This year, I have discovered that basil can be grown indoors in a pot on a sunny windowsill through winter. I obtained a pot containing several plants from the greengrocer, and I didn't transplant them. Growth is obviously more limited, because of the smaller size of the container required in such a position, and lack of strong sunlight in winter, but I was able to use the leaves (sparingly) for a number of meals, with the plant regenerating each time it was thus 'pruned'. Basil can also be grown as a microgreen plant on a windowsill (pictured above), thickly sown and harvested a few weeks after germination. The baby leaves have a good basil flavour.

Perennial form of basil

There are also perennial forms of basil, and I was given a form with a purplish tinge to its foliage that has survived through winter. The flavour of the perennial varieties seems to vary somewhat, with some being too 'camphor-ish', but this one appears to have a good basil aroma. I am not sure of its name but it could be 'African Blue', a cross between Ocimum kilimandscharicum and Ocimum basilicum 'Dark Opal'. It has pretty spires of purple flowers; the perennial forms can apparently be allowed to flower as this won't hurt the leaf production. There are several forms, I gather, and they can grow into small shrubs, which attract bees and offer the possibility of basil leaves throughout the year. They are propagated by cuttings.