The Garden Gate: Make your trip to the supermarket a history lesson

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Grocery shopping is a lot more fun than it used to be.

All the supermarkets seem to be expanding in every direction these days, and they’re full of specialized departments which purvey myriad exotic fruits and vegetables from other climes, ethnic specialties, gourmét offerings, and ready-prepared foods that only need a zap in the microwave. The possibilities do seem to be endless.

One department of special interest is the area where fresh herbs are available. They are packaged ready for use, or set in little pots to grace your kitchen windowsill.

This department seems even more intriguing when you think of the extreme antiquity of the use of herbs in cooking. The Egyptians used them, and they were used in one way or another in almost every dish in medieval England and by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

William Harrison, writing in 1577, thought very highly of saffron and gave his advice as to how it should be grown:

“Warm nights, sweet dewed, jet grounds and mistie mornings are very good for saffron, but frost and dew that is cold doe kill the flours. Would to God that my countrymen had been heretobefore more careful of this commodities, then would it no doubt have proved more beneficial to our island than our clothes or wool.”

Another chronicler in the 15th century wrote: “Basill is sowen in gardens in earthen pots ... . it is goode for the hart and for the head and gives savour to food. The seeds cureth the infirmities of the hart, taketh away sorrowfulness, which cometh of melancholia, and maketh a man merrie and glad.”

In the 1866 book, “Crumbs From the Round Table,” John Barker wrote that the Romans understood and applied hygienic principles rigidly, and regulated dietary requirements by penal statute.

Greens were required eating and were used in salads as a part of every meal.

Herbs, fruits and vegetables were required daily. Many prominent families of ancient Rome seamed to have even derived their names from herbs or vegetables. Fabius comes from “faba,” a bean. Cicero derives from “cicer,” a kind of pea.

Garlic is a cultivated plant of such antiquity that its origin is unknown. Cabbage was deified by the ancient Egyptians, and onions and leeks were held in high esteem all over the ancient world.

Many superstitions have centered around leeks. For instance, Charlemagne ordered them planted on housetops as a guard against lightning strikes, fire or sorcery.

Although its beginnings are uncertain, lettuce, which is considered a herb, has known a long period of cultivation. Botanists say it was developed from the compass plant, or wild lettuce. Aristoxenus, in the 5th century B.C., was so proud of his garden lettuce that he had it watered with wine and honey. Lettuce was then prized for various medicinal uses, evidence of its unrecognized but sensed vitamin content.

The French were probably the first to improve on the ancient Roman idea of salads by mixing herbs into them in various combinations that we would now consider too much of a good thing. They added some other ingredients, too, until by 1500 a good salad contained more than 35 ingredients.

Many of today’s herbs and vegetables are listed in the “Apicius Book,” an ancient cookbook dating back to imperial Rome. Apician recipes were the influence on European cooking for centuries until the advent of printing. Even then, new cookbooks and herbals leaned very heavily on this source.

The most famous herbal among the thousands that have been printed over the centuries is “Gerard’s Herbal,” published in the early years of the 16th century.

It was lavishly illustrated with detailed woodcuts of all the plants mentioned. It is still a reliable source of herbal information, once one gets used to the archaic spelling and the quaint turns of phrase.

It is delightful reading.

Most public libraries have updated versions of “Gerard’s Herbal,” and they often have facsimile copies of the original.

Many kinds of herbs and greens can be grown in little pots on sunny windowsills. They make very decorative houseplants for winter days.

There is great satisfaction to be gained from snipping chives or parsley from your kitchen windowsill plants to use in a salad or as a garnish.

Potpourris are probably a survival of the medieval custom of strewing fragrant herbs on the floor to scent the house. And salads are still as popular and varied as they were in ancient Rome.

Grocery shopping can be a history lesson, an adventure and, above all, great fun.

The herbs of antiquity will probably find many new uses in the 21st century and well beyond.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.