In its truest form, food is a layered art. Like orchestral music, culinary performance requires distinct layers of sensation to be triggered for the experience to be complete.
In simple terms we need anchor notes, principals and perfumes as the three key forms of flavour.
Hearty, earthy flavours are needed to ground and contextualise food, much as a frame gives proportion to a picture. These are the anchors. Mushrooms, grains and pulses do this job with great efficiency.
The principals are exactly what they sound like, the primary flavour of our meal. The meat. The fish.
But it is perfumes that give food its character. These are the flavours you smell long before you taste them. Lingering and ethereal they seem to float above the meal. This is where herbs come into their own.
Basil is the perfume of Italian food, because after all basil is as Italian as the Leaning Tower and the Colliseum. Isn’t it? From pesto to pizza, spaghetti to salsa, it’s hard to imagine a true Italian nosh up without that familiar herbal perfume, reminiscent of camphor and cloves.
But as with so many things in life, the truth is far more complicated. You see, there are 2 basic basil families.
Sweet basil is the European herb we find in Mediterranean cuisines, and as far east as the Persian Gulf states. Within this grouping there are hundreds of varietals, each with unique aromas, characteristics and cultivation habits. Such variety is a good thing as it means we have basil available almost year-round. These unique basils can have a broad range of distinctive perfumes from cinnamon to bay, pine to geranium, citrus to roses.
Asian basil, by contrast, tends to smell more strongly of cloves, and can have varying degrees of spice flavour.
To really get the most out of basil you should use it freshly picked, while its leaves contain the most amount of aromatic essential oils. What better excuse is needed to grow your own.
Steamed tuna in basil leaves