Outside my office window are two big rosemary bushes, one that is a creeping variety, with branches that curve this way and that, and one that is an upright variety, with branches that grow straight and tall. Both are covered in the pretty blue flowers that are responsible for the plant’s Latin name, rosmarinus, which means “dew of the sea.” These flowers are, in a typical year, the first to appear in the new year.
Early Christians altered the story of the herb’s name, claiming it for the Virgin Mary, whose eyes were said to be the pale blue of a rosemary blossom.
My upright rosemary plant is quite dear to me, as it was a gift from Rico Traverso, who grew it from a cutting from the bush outside the door of Traverso’s Market when it was located at B and Third Streets in Santa Rosa. Rosemary is said to be the herb of remembrance and in this case it is certainly true. If you wish to be unforgettable to someone, give them a rosemary plant.
Rosemary has an impressive array of powers. If you’re prone to nightmares, carrying a sprig of fresh rosemary to bed with you should dispel them. If you want to attract elves and fairies to your garden, plant rosemary; they use the blossoms as cradles for their babies. Old herbals claim that rosemary prevents baldness, though none offer an exact formula for achieving such a result.
Rosemary is also thought to ease depression and enhance memory, qualities that express themselves in a number of ways. When studying for an exam, sipping a cup of rosemary tea won’t hurt, and it might help. With it comes to depression, plant rosemary in your garden — it needs sun, so don’t put it under a tree — and take in its aroma every morning, before you start your day.
Although rosemary is sold dried in just about every spice section and spice store in the country, it is best fresh. Both fresh and dried rosemary have a resinous taste, but it is more pronounced in the dried herb. Fresh rosemary has bright high notes and a warmth that balance its resinous quality.
Rosemary should be used judiciously and with an understanding of what foods it may overwhelm. Many people love to put a sprig or two in the cavity of a chicken about to be roasted but I find it overwhelms the taste of the chicken in an unpleasant way. Rosemary’s classic pairing is, of course, with lamb, rightfully so; it is also excellent with beef. Avoid using it with seafood, as it will overwhelm the flavor, as it does with poultry.
An easy way to enjoy rosemary’s flavor is to put a clean fresh sprig or two into a bottle — a wine bottle is perfect — and fill the bottle with good red wine vinegar that is no more than 6 percent acidity.
Close the bottle with a cork and store it in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry for at least 6 weeks. Putting rosemary sprigs into olive oil is a popular but misguided option.
You risk botulism, for one thing, because botulism thrives in an anaerobic environment, which is exactly what olive oil is. It will also spoil quickly as the herb deteriorates. Vinegar preserves; olive oil does not.