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Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Lamiaceae (mint family).
Genus Ocimum is widespread over Asia, Africa and Central and Southern America; it appears to have its center of diversity in Africa. Basil was probably first put to cultivation in India.
Today, basil is cultivated in many Asian and Mediterranean countries; main exporters (for the European market) are France, Italy, Morocco and Egypt. There is also significant basil production in California.
Used plant part
Leaves; frequently, the entire herb (all aerial parts) is harvested. Best harvesting season is before flowering. Basil leaves should always be used fresh, as they lose most of their flavour withina a few weeks after drying. However, in the Georgian spice mixture khmeli-suneli, dried basil is employed.
The seeds of basil have some use as thickening agent in Thailand, but do not share the leaves' fragrance.
Fresh basil leaves have a strong and characteristic aroma, not comparable to any other spice, although there is a hint of cloves traceable.
The essential oil (less than 1%) is of complex and variable composition. Within the species, several different chemical races exist, and furthermore climate, soil and time of harvest influence not only the amount but also the composition of the essential oil. The most important aroma components are 1,8 cineol, linalool, citral, methyl chavicol (estragole), eugenol and methyl cinnamate, although not necessarily in this order; in fact, hardly any basil contains all of these compounds in significant amounts. African species often contain camphor.
Further monoterpenes (ocimene, geraniol, camphor), sesquiterpenes (bisabolene, caryophyllene) and phenylpropanoids (methyl eugenol) can be present in varying amounts and strongly influence the flavour. There is considerable infraspecific variation, opening favourable perspectives for future plant breeding by selection.
Italian basil, flowering
Mediterranean Basil is one of the most pleasant spices, and indispensable for several Mediterranean cuisines. The sweet and aromatic fragrance is especially popular in Italy. Since the delicate aroma of basil is quickly destroyed by cooking, chopped basil leaves are frequently sprinkled over cold or warm dishes before serving. A famous recipe often found outside of Italy is insalata caprese (Capri sald): Tomato slices topped with creamy mozarella cheese and basil leaves, seasoned with highest quality olive oil. Further north, where tomatoes are less flavourful, the salad is often additionally flavoured with the famed aceto balsamico (balsam vinegar).
The well-known pesto alla Genovese is a speciality of Liguria, the region in North Western Italy where lovage is native to. That paste is made from fresh basil leaves together with extra vergine olive oil, pine nuts, aromatic local cheese (parmigiano, pecorino sardo) and garlic; a dash of ground cloves might be necessary to improve the flavour of basil not grown under Italy's hot sun. Pesto is usually served with Italian noodles (pasta). Besides tasting excellent, pesto is also efficient in preserving basil, even without deep-freezer (although it does keep better frozen).
Unfortunately, pesto is very susceptible to enzymatic oxidation by atmospheric oxygen: Exposed to air, it browns rapidly due to oxidation of its phenolic tannins to chinoid polymers. In this process, its flavour is greatly reduced. Susceptibilty to oxidation is particularly high if the basil has been pureed to much, or if the pesto has been frozen and rethawed. There is no easy way to prevent this degradation: Blanching tha basil leaves does inactivate the phenoloxidases responsible for the reaction, but it also destroys most of the taste. Adding anitoxidants or acids also might help but would influence the flavour themselves.
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