Rosemary – A Scent of Provence

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Rosemary’s Mediterranean flavour will liven up your meals and add quality to your life

By ALICE ALECH

Herbes de Provence – a blend of thyme, rosemary, basil, parsley, oregano, tarragon, marjoram and lavender – is the secret spice of Provencal cuisine. These herbs work magic on almost any meal. If you’re aiming for perfection, just add them to your marinades and salad dressings. 

Rosemary is one of my favourite herbs in the Provencal combo, accounting for around 26 percent of the mix. This versatile herb has a distinctive flavour that will give that French touch to your cuisine and, more importantly, offer some powerful health benefits.

It’s easy to recognize rosemary in Provence where it grows wild and thrives beautifully on our chalky soil. The leaves are a bit like pine needles; and if you stop to smell the foliage, you get a shot of that distinctive, pungent aroma. 

Legend has it the Ancients used rosemary for weddings and funerals alike. Brides wore garlands made of rosemary as a symbol of love, happiness and fidelity. In Egypt, the pharaohs were buried with rosemary in their tombs, supposedly to protect their souls.

During the Great Plague of 1665 to 1666, people believed rosemary could protect them. Londoners used it to purify the air and prevent infection in hospitals, while healthy people sniffed the shrub to stay well. 

Tucking a few rosemary twigs under the pillow for protection against evil spirits was another common practice during the Middle Ages.

Rosemary in the kitchen

Cooking with rosemary has always been taken seriously in Provence. It marries beautifully with vegetables, even the humble potato. Try coating dice-sized potatoes in a mixture of rosemary, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper before baking them. You can use dried rosemary, but remember that dried herbs are generally more potent. One teaspoon of dried rosemary is the equivalent of about three teaspoons of fresh herbs. 

Do you like blending your extra virgin olive oil with garlic? Oil seasoned with both garlic and rosemary is handy in the kitchen – just what you need to flavour salads, vegetables and marinades. Fill a bottle with olive oil, add two or three cloves of garlic, two sprigs of fresh rosemary and shake well. Keep the bottle well away from light (the best way to store olive oil) and let the oil infuse for at least three weeks.

I like to keep a few sprigs of rosemary in the kitchen just to have a whiff now and then, and especially if I’m doing a lot of cooking and need to keep the kitchen fresh and odour-free for guests.

To transfer the herb’s lovely aroma to whatever I’m seasoning it with, I usually crush a few fresh leaves in my hands before adding them to the dish. I am lucky to have two rosemary shrubs just outside the house. Fresh rosemary is a luxury I truly appreciate. 

Cooks in Provence often sprinkle a bit of rosemary into fruit-based desserts or jams, and you might even come across crème brûlée with a hint of rosemary. Dusting with a little rosemary just before adding the filling of an apricot tart, for example, will give a fantastic result.

Rosemary for Your Health 

Health benefits of rosemary have been noted since antiquity, but thanks to modern research, scientists now have evidence this natural ingredient can contribute to a healthier lifestyle. Here are a few of their findings.

Remember better with rosemary 

With so many older adults suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and memory decline, we’re all keen to improve our memory and concentration. A sniff of rosemary now and then just might give our brains that welcome boost.

A study carried out in the UK suggests that the scent of rosemary can improve memory and enhance brain performance. Researchers at the Human Cognitive Neuroscience Unit in Northumbria University randomly exposed 144 healthy subjects, aged sixty-five years or older, to a room infused with the scent of rosemary essential oil, lavender oil or no aroma at all. On analysis, the psychologists found that subjects exposed to rosemary scored much better when tested for cognitive functions. “Rosemary produced a significant enhancement of performance for overall quality of memory,” they wrote.

Greek students in ancient times were probably the first to recognize these mind-boosting effects. It appears it was common practice for them to wear crowns made of rosemary twigs to enhance their academic performance.

Protection against cancer?

Rosemary leaves contain carnosol, carnosic acids and rosmarinic acid, compounds that scientists say have antioxidant and antiinflammatory properties. Laboratory studies carried out at Brock University in Ontario showed that these compounds, as well as rosemary extract, inhibit breast, leukemia, prostate, melanoma and lung cancer cell lines.

The team found that rosemary:

Stopped the survival and spread of cancer cells and enhanced the process of apoptosis, or preprogrammed cell death.

Blocked the Akt, a signalling pathway that would have caused the cancer cells to multiply.

And prevented certain proteins in the cancer cells from being activated.

Tackling bacteria

The bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) can irritate the digestive system, eventually causing sores or ulcers in the stomach lining. H. pylori – with help from psychological stress – is the cause of “ulcers.” Scientists have shown that rosemary contains powerful antibacterial components which help fight H. pylori and other gut pathogens.

Ward off macular degeneration?

Macular degeneration is one of the most talked about eye conditions today, a disease affecting the retina of older adults. It can eventually lead to blindness. Laboratory studies carried out at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute suggests carnosic acid – an antioxidant found in rosemary – may protect against the disease.

To simulate the oxidative stress that contributes to macular degeneration, the researchers exposed cultures of retinal cells to hydrogen peroxide, then treated the cells with carnosic acid. In response, the cells produced an antioxidant enzyme that lowered the level of oxidative stress.

Some websites warn that rosemary may interfere with anticoagulants and some other medications (probably only in high doses), but the authoritative medical website, WebMD, doesn’t. To be extra safe, you might want to consult your doctor or pharmacist. 

Writer Alice Alech lives in Provence, South of France  where she writes on  food, olive oïl and wine. She is co-author of the non fiction book 7 Wonders of Olive Oil. Find her at  alicealech.com

 

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