We arrived after dark, as I remember it. The villa was an hour’s drive from Florence, high in the Tuscan hills. It had taken us two hours to get there, having spent an hour trying and failing to leave the city in the right direction. We were hungry and tired, stressed and irritable. We walked through the property and out onto the terrace where we were assailed by the scent of rosemary. The air was thick with it – the day must have been hot – and the essential oils were rich and resinous. The source was a low hedge which bordered the outer edge of the paving; a dense, thick-growing hedge of Rosmarinus officinalis. The dear owners had left a bottle of wine, a loaf of homemade bread, and some local sheep’s cheese for us. We carried it outside and dined like kings.
It is hard not to be envious of the Italians. the fecundity of the soil and the generosity of the climate gifts them such immense vegetable riches. The rosemary of our terrace was so strongly scented that we almost mistook it in the dark for that other Mediterranean star, myrtle. All week, we ate rabbit and wild boar dishes flavoured with rosemary and thyme, and the complexity of flavour which these herbs added was unlike anything we could achieve in England with the same ingredients. Our rosemary just never has the sustained heat to thrive in that way, nor have I ever been able to grow such a dense hedge with it. I consider it a ‘dry and spicy’ herb akin to bay, and it pairs well with meat or roasted vegetables such as potato and butternut squash.
The ‘officinalis’ of the name indicates that this is a herb which was valued for its medicinal uses, whilst Rosmarinus translates as ‘dew of the sea’. I, clearly, have been to the wrong parts of the Mediterranean as I have never seen it growing wild on the coastline as I would expect. The hard, needle-like leaf would make it salt-tolerant though. It also prefers light, well-drained soils and is tremendously drought resistant. I always find a place for it in the garden, preferably somewhere I will pass frequently and will brush against it, or can tease it between my fingers. Cooked or raw, eaten or inhaled, I find rosemary comforting and nourishing to the spirit. Like all evergreens, it carries the garden through winter, and its habit of flowering at almost any time of year brings little points of colour to a dark day. There are upright forms which are striking in pots and good for a small space such as a balcony, and prostrate cultivars which tumble nicely over a wall, although I have never found these as hardy. Mine is flowering now, with blossoms like little flakes of Italian sky, promising summer.