Whenever I think of rosemary, I hear in my mind’s ear the accompanying line from Hamlet: “That’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember,” from Ophelia’s sad, mad little speech to her brother, Laertes, right before she dies. She was onto something. Not only have various scientific studies proved the veracity of the centuries-old belief that the smell of rosemary helps and preserves the memory, but the herb also has endured as a traditional symbol of fidelity.
In a 1607 sermon called “A Marriage Present,” the celebrated doctor of divinity Roger Hackett proclaimed, “Speaking of the powers of rosemary, it overtoppeth all the flowers in the garden, boasting man’s rule. It helpeth the brain, strengtheneth the memorie, and is very medicinable for the head. Another property of the rosemary is, it affects the heart. Let this rosmarinus, this flower of men ensigne of your wisdom, love and loyaltie, be carried not only in your hands, but in your hearts and heads.”
When Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), the Catholic statesman and utopian thinker, described the rosemary “running” freely through his garden, he extolled, “It is the herb sacred to remembrance, and therefore, to friendship. A sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes.” I imagine that when Henry VIII had More executed, the king may have seen fit to place a sprig on the corpse of his former friend.
The allure of rosemary’s powers — medicinal, intellectual, culinary, ritualistic, and emotional — has always been wide reaching. Its name is an amalgam of ros, or dew, and marin, or sea. First cultivated around the Mediterranean, where it grew like mad in the sandy soil and sea spray, it was brought to England during the time of the Roman Empire and traveled, in due time, to the Americas. During the Black Death, it was brought into sickrooms to ward off disease, and this practice was continued in hospitals. In courtrooms, the clarity-inducing smell of rosemary was meant to dispel falsehood and dissembling. Also called incensier, the herb was a cheap form of incense used in ancient religious rituals, and was included in funeral, Christmas, and wedding wreaths alike.
It further symbolized a woman’s power in her own house. An old saying went, “Where Rosemary flourished, the woman ruled.” Rosemary grew rampant in many kitchen gardens and evidently threatened the peace of mind of more than one husband. According to The Treasury of Botany, “There is a vulgar belief in Gloucestershire and other counties, that Rosemary will not grow well unless where the mistress is ‘master’; and so touchy are some of the lords of creation upon this point, that we have more than once had reason to suspect them of privately injuring a growing rosemary in order to destroy this evidence of their want of authority.”
Centuries later, in 1980, the year after I graduated from high school — the same year John Lennon was shot, and Ronald Reagan was first elected, I lived in the Allier, the muddy, nondescript center of France, as the fille au pair for a family with four boys under the age of eleven. That year, as well as learning more about small boys than I ever imagined I’d know, I discovered a lot of exciting food I’d never seen before: crème fraîche; soft, buttery, slippery lamb’s-ear lettuce, or mâche; mousse au chocolat; rabbit stew made with bacon and red wine; brioche with Nutella…and fresh herbs.
Having come of age in the 1970s, I’d always thought herbs came from the supermarket, dried, in small glass jars. In France, I discovered that they grew on lush, fragrant bushes, and I could go outside with scissors and a small basket and snip off bunches of them. This hit me as something of a revelation.
Rosemary, which grew abundantly there, was the greatest shock of all. I knew it, in dried form, as a cluster of tiny sticks that smelled equally of dust and pine, and I was never sure what to do with it. Vivian, the woman I worked for, often made a tisane before bed, steeping fresh rosemary in boiling water with honey. I held my cup under my chin in both hands and inhaled. The smell was sharp, like intensely perfumed pine needles, and the infusion tasted bracing and medicinal, in the best way, with hints of camphor and pepper. I was very homesick that year, and the smell of fresh rosemary, strange and tantalizingly new, mocked my yearning for the familiar and bucked me up; it gave me, an eighteen-year-old, bookish, violin-playing, naive virgin, a thirst for experience of any kind — intellectual, romantic, spiritual, interpersonal, or culinary; it didn’t matter. Instead of returning me to the past, rosemary propelled me toward the future.
The taste of rosemary is so powerful, it can overwhelm tamer ingredients if not used judiciously, with caution. It requires dance partners that can match its strength. Baked into sturdy, rich shortbread, focaccia, or scones, along with grated strong-tasting cheese, like Parmesan or sharp cheddar, its woodsy resin mellows into a heady lusciousness. Paired with garlic as a garnish for roasted meats, its sprigs tucked into the skin of lamb legs or beef roasts, it lends its sharp oils to melted fat and caramelized garlic sweetness to achieve legendary, exalted perfection.
My mother, who became a vegan last year for purely health reasons (she’s in her seventies and wants to live as long and healthy a life as possible), sent the following e-mail to me last night, having no idea I was currently interested in rosemary: “An unusual and swoon-worthy soup: turnips, rosemary, garlic, onion, and rice ground in the coffee grinder for just a minute — small chunks of turnip (about three-quarter-inch cubes), and a bit of white wine and black pepper. The two tastes, turnip and rosemary, work together mysteriously, making each other more subtle. Turnips and rosemary — magical!” It makes sense; the deep, pungent taste of the turnip is intense enough to two-step with rosemary without being dominated or overpowered.
My friend Rosie’s mother, who died two years ago, used to make an interesting, decadent-sounding recipe called Mama Leone’s Chicken Cacciatore for Rosie and her brother when they were growing up. It called for a whole spring chicken, plus salt pork, chicken livers and gizzards, olive oil, tomatoes, butter, onion, garlic, parsley, and a teaspoon of rosemary. It was delicious, a special treat. The little teaspoon of the herb was the foremost element in the dish for Rosie, the most memorable part of it, so that when I asked her for a rosemary recipe, this was the one she thought of first.
The Christmas after their mother died, Rosie’s brother made this recipe for his family and for his sister, who was visiting. The taste instantly brought their mother back. Of course, the presence of rosemary in the dish cannot be accidental.