The Basil Effect

About a year ago, I was given a plant cutting from a friend who had just returned to the UK from Greece. The plant was a basil, but it was neither the large leafed sweet basil nor the small leafed Greek globe basil, both of which I use in cooking and can often be found in pots on my kitchen windowsill. The leaves of this new basil were of moderate size, and slightly pointy. But, it smelled strongly of basil and turned out to be just another of the many varieties of ocimum basilicum, sweet basil. It was Greek column basil (ocimum basilicum citriodorum), so named since it has an upright growing habit that can reach 3 feet in height. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but the story that came with it was extraordinary. It naturally piqued my interest in all things to do with culinary tradition.

That cutting, now rooted and potted up, originally came from Arcadia, a province in the Peloponnese, Greece. It, along with others, had been taken to church to be blessed by the priest before they were distributed to be used in bread making – not as an ingredient in the bread, but as an aid placed in with the dough during the production of the sourdough starter. Apparently, it is an old tradition, but no one seems to know where and how it came about. But, like many of these traditions, it may have roots in the ancient pagan past.

holy_basil_potted

Was this purely superstition or based on logical observation? In other words, could there be a scientific explanation for this custom of placing a sprig of basil in with the starter? With a great deal of internet searching, the only thing that I can find is that basil is known as an inhibitor of bacteria. That might be the answer, but not being a food chemist, I had to fall back on the logic of folk custom.

As an experiment, I applied this “basil effect” to my own starter, as the plant had now reached the proportions that it was wise to nip its top to promote lateral growth. I chose a traditional French levain. For instructions on making the levain and attracting those wild yeasts, I turned to Daniel Leader’s wonderful book Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe’s Best Artisan Bakers. Leader very clearly lays out the step-by step procedure for the 4 day procedure (in some cases up to 10 days) to produce the starter. I won’t repeat his lenghty instructions here, but if you are serious about making your own levain, I can highly recommend this book or Daniel Leader’ previous book, Bread Alone: Bold Fresh Loaves from Your Own Hands.

levain_starter

As you see in the photos above, I followed Leader’s instructions rigorously, but added a small sprig of the “blessed” basil to the dough, picking it out each time the levain needed to be fed or refreshed before placing it back again. Anything to help the process in a solid stone house in Northern England where the optimum temperatures for sour dough starters are rarely achieved. Whether it is due to science or superstition, the levain was created. Overnight, it magically trebled in volume!

levain_made

I’ve named my starter “Vaso”, after a Greek friend and fellow bread baker. But, doubly appropriate since Vaso is a shortened form of Vasiliki, the feminine version Vasilios – both etymologically related to the Greek for king (vasilias, βασιλιάς), but also for the king of herbs, basil (vasileios, βασίλειος). A portion of the starter went to that friend who initially supplied me with the basil and the rest was put to use in my kitchen. The first baking with Vaso was brilliant – lovely crusty bread, chewy texture and a slight sour taste, just right for sourdough. Not sure the “basil effect” had a hand in the outcome, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

basil_levain_feature

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28 comments

  1. I loved your post. I found “columnar basil” here in Albuquerque at a small nursery a couple of years ago and loved it. It produced about a dozen 3 foot high stalks, laden with beautiful leaves, which seemed to resist all other pests that attacked the other basil forms. I had a steady supply of fragrant and tasty leaves all summer, with a bounty to dry come the fall. This year, I had a hard time finding the plant, but I did and am now enjoying the leaves. I had no idea of the wonderful story behind your cutting, though, and it is just great!

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    • It’s an interesting herb. I got my cutting at the end of last summer and simply let it root in water before finally planting up. I suspect if you can find a column basil again, you can take cuttings for the next year’s plant, thus perpetuating your supply. At least that is a theory! I’m going to try it on this plant to see if I can get a few more going for next year. I got this story (and the cutting) from a Greek friend who (along with her British husband) collect such stories from the older population, specifically in rural areas. Their primary interest is in how food is grown, harvested, prepared and preserved in the pre-mechanised past.

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    • Well, now you’ve spotted the flaw in my argument! 😉 No, I did not have a “control” test without the basil. But, I plan on making a rye starter soon and will do this without the basil. It will no doubt work, but won’t have a nice story to go with it!

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    • You’re absolutely right! That’s why I was searching for a scientific explanation. Often folk customs like this are based on observations of what works and then over time these customs accumulate other elements such as the blessing of the basil. Often in the summer in Greece – Crete in particular – you will find pots of the spicy globe basil just outside house doors. They brush it with their hands when entering or exiting. I think the scent is thought to keeps mosquitos and other insects away.

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  2. On the 14th of September the Greek Orthodox church celebrates the Elevation of the Holy Cross (also referred to as the Exaltation of the Cross). This when you’re supposed to have your basil “blessed”, during mass… It is considered a “holy” plant because it was found on the spot where empress Helen (mother of Constantine the Great) discovered the Cross of Christ on Golgotha (just outside the walls of Old City of Jerusalem) in 326 AD. Thus, the flower has been named “Vasiliko” or Basil, meaning the flower of royalty… sorry for all the trivia!!! My grandma used to tell us the story every.single.time she made levain and even though she was a firm believer, she would make it -without- the basil at least half of the times… yeah… it works just the same!!…Lol…

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    • I love this kind of trivia and I’m so glad to know that it was used in this way by your Grandmother. The story and the basil came to me via a Greek friend, but originally from the mother of one of our Greek students who comes from a village in Arcadia and is keen on the “old ways” of doing things.

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    • Who knows? I was quite surprised that it only took 4 days. The book indicated that it might take up to 10 or it might fail. I think I should make another one – perhaps a rye starter – without the basil. I also wasn’t exaggerating about temperatures inside our house!

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      • I used water that I’d boiled potatoes in to make my spelt starter. The starches supposedly help feed the yeasts. It took a good 6-8 days with daily feedings after day 4. I read a great tip. Only cover the starter with cloth as you need to collect the wild yeasts in the atmosphere to activate your starter. I’ve heard many people complain they ended up with mould on the surface and no life. When questioned, they had their starter in a sealed jar.

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      • I must try the starchy water trick. I could see how that would work. And, yes, I simply put a clean tea towel over the bowl and didn’t seal it until the starter was complete and needed to be stored for future use (i.e. in the refrigerator to slow the fermentation process). Maybe there are a lot of wild yeasts floating about Yorkshire?

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  3. The basil thing is weird Debi, whether it had a positive effect, I can’t tell but you are right, there certainly was no negative effect, your bread looks fab.

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    • Hi Glenda, The “experiment” really wasn’t a scientific one – just curiosity and because the basil was there sitting on the windowsill. It is an odd custom and I had real difficulty trying to find a rational answer. Perhaps some things are just to be taken on faith. You’re right, the bread was really good and the starter is still going strong many loaves later!

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  4. I love basil… any of the many varieties available… I usually have genovese one (great for pesto) , greek and purple one!
    I wish i could try a slice of this amazing bread…i can only imagine the scent! 🙂
    Vaso… in italian means Pot…. like the one where i grow basil 😉

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    • Interesting about ‘vaso’ meaning a pot! The sourdough bread was really great and I was truly amazed that the starter actually worked considering British weather. I’m now a sourdough convert and have just created a rye starter. Might try barley next.

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