The use of spices and herbs goes back centuries and records show that the Roman Empire had a particular role in transforming previously simple dishes into rich, complex preparations that used a variety of dried roots, berries and leaves. Many ancient spice blends were associated with world religions, recognising the value of these precious and health-giving ingredients. A cookbook from the first century, De re coquinaria, includes recipes that call for a heavy addition of both herbs and spices – probably in part to mask the fact that no refrigeration was available! However, although many spices and herbs have international origins – many hailing from Asia – they form a particularly important role in Italian cuisine.
The herbs most commonly found in Italian cooking
Although different regions will have their own specialities, the herbs most commonly associated with Italian cuisine are as follows:
Basil – or basilico – is the most typically used herb in Italian cooking and found in every good tomato sauce! It actually originates from India by way of the spice trade and brings a light freshness to all dishes. It pairs particularly well with tomato, cheers, lemon and garlic and is most famously found in a simple Caprese salad. As an added benefit, it is also naturally anti-bacterial. Culturally, basil is associated with love and its original Greek name – basileus – means ‘king’.
Parsley – called prezzemolo in Italian, is used heavily in vegetable sauces, seafood, sauces, pasta dishes and soups. The Italians also enjoy it with spicier dishes. It is also ideal for counteracting the aroma of garlic and used to freshen breath, and it is packed with vitamins and minerals.
Sage – or salvia – is believed to clear blocked energy in many traditional cultures and its name derives from the Latin for ‘health’. It is found typically in pasta, risotto and gnocchi, as well as soups and with roasted meat. It helps to soothe digestion and provides anti-inflammatory properties, making it famous as the ‘miracle herb’ of Italian cuisine.
Oregano – or origano – is most flavoursome when dried and found typically in Sicilian and Italian dishes. It is packed with omega-3 acids, manganese and iron.
Rosemary – or rosmarino – grows readily in Italy, and has a wonderful woody, peppery flavour. It is often used to flavour stews and stocks and with roasted meat or vegetables. Like many other herbs, it also has an ancient symbolism, being associated with friendship in particular. Health benefits include antioxidants, calcium and iron.7
The spices most commonly found in Italian cooking
Spices are also found heavily in Italian cooking, including:
Saffron – made from crocuses and the most prized of the spices for its incredible colour and flavour. It has many health benefits and is believed to have aphrodisiac properties!
Pepper – known as the ‘king of spices’, pepper has been used as a seasoning, a preservative and even a form of currency for centuries. It is used widely in savoury and even some sweet recipes for depth and flavour enhancement.
Chili – available in many different types, chili is used to add fire and heat to dishes.
Cinnamon – taken from the bark of the wild Cinnamomum tree genus, this warming spice is packed with health benefits and imparts a natural sweetness to savoury and sweet recipes alike.
Vanilla – derived from orchids, the vanilla pod is one of the most labour-intensive spices to harvest and the second-dearest spice after saffron. Its flavour is complex, comforting, warming and sweet and its fragrance is truly addictive. Vanilla is an essential for Italian dessert cooking.
How should I use these herbs and spices?
Every recipe will call for its own traditional herb and spice blend and it is important to follow the pairings carefully if you want an authentic flavour. Great combinations to try include rich yellow saffron in simple risotto alla Milanese, pepper in spaghetti cacio e pepe and chili in penne all’arrabbiata. Why not make your own pesto with fresh basil, or try rosemary in Italian roasted meat and potatoes or castagnaccio, a cake made with chestnut flour, raisins and pine nuts. Parsley and dill will be the natural choice for fish dishes, and sage is beautiful with ravioli burro e salvia. Furthermore, in sweet dishes look for cinnamon in strudel and vanilla in crema pasticcera.
One final tip!
Italian cooking is all about using the finest ingredients and preparing them simply with flair, skill and passion. Because herbs and spices are extremely pungent, do not be tempted to ‘add a little extra’. Follow recipes carefully as you learn to cook this delicious cuisine, and then over time, you can experiment successfully as your skills and knowledge grow.
Remember, here at Eataly we are here to help you on your gastronomic adventure – so come and buy the most authentic and carefully dried herbs and spices and get ready to cook delicious traditional Italian cuisine!