I always think of basil as the sunshine herb, maybe because I got to know it the first summer I spent in Italy, in Genoa, where the locals lay claim to growing a small-leafed most fragrant variety. It needs the sea air, they say, and plenty of sun. Basil grows well in full sun and doesn’t seem to mind a summer shower.
The herbalists write that the smell is good for sinus sufferers. I know it’s good for flies – repelling them, that is. The old saying that it takes away ones’ sorrow must be related to the fact that it smells like trapped sunshine, intense, heady, with a clove-like scent, heavy with camphor and cinnamon overtones. It’s a head-turner for sure – impossible to ignore and impossible to resist.
It’s one of those herbs that can be used in abundance, but it retains more flavour and a better colour when added towards the end of cooking. Basil is especially good scattered over a hot dish of food just before you take it to the table – the warmth draws out the heady scent and sends it wafting around the room. Irresistible! But be quick to serve because basil quickly blackens. And pesto, no matter how inconvenient, is always more fragrant and delicious when freshly made. If it is too thick and chunky, thin with hot water, not oil, because oil will make it too rich. And remember to use a good splash of cooking water from the pasta pot when dressing pasta with pesto to help it flow over the pasta. The hot water also helps set the green colour. If you have trouble keeping pesto a lovely bright green – and it can be due to the type of basil you use (soft-leafed basil tends to discolour more readily than true Genovese small-leafed basil) – blanch the basil leaves for 15 seconds only, immediately drain and plunge them into a bowl of water and ice. The basil will cool quickly, in a matter of seconds. Remove it, wring out excess water and pat dry with paper towels, then proceed with pesto recipe. Another trick is to add a few squirts of lemon juice. The acid helps keep the green colour.