Magazine article The Spectator

Sensitive Monarch

Magazine article The Spectator

Sensitive Monarch

Article excerpt

Food for thought

In this column last summer, I mentioned my quasi-commercial growing of tomatoes, some 20 years ago, in a greenhouse in Berkshire. In part of that greenhouse I also used to grow a lot of basil. Every week in season we would send bags of the picked leaves to a restaurateur who ran three places in London. Extraordinary to recall, but at that time he was unable to rely on the London markets to supply all the basil he needed on a regular basis. In supermarkets today, fresh basil is almost as readily available as baked beans.

We are speaking, of course, of sweet basil, the original and best-known variety. I was amazed to see that Suffolk Herbs offers no fewer than 17 different varieties of basil in this year's catalogue. There is anise basil, cinnamon basil, lemon basil, lime basil, red basil, purple basil - not to mention Greek, Thai and Indonesian basils. It all becomes too confusing. From my own experience of other basils, the bushy variety and the Neapolitan basil, with large crinkled leaves, both have a good flavour, but anything with red or purple leaves tends to have rather a bitter taste and is better left in the garden and admired for its pink flowers.

Basil is the veritable king of herbs (its name comes from the Greek for king, basileus), and as such is entitled to expect special treatment. The seed catalogues may advise that basil should not be sown outside or planted out until this month, but my advice is that it should not be planted out at all. Basil is a sensitive monarch: it does not require great heat, but it dislikes change. Rain and wind during summer are apt to turn the leaves yellow in the garden. Much better to keep the plants in pots, whether indoors, in a greenhouse or in a well-protected, south-facing spot near the house.

Basil requires careful watering - during the day in warm weather as it dislikes having wet 'feet' - and the flowering tops should be pinched out to prolong the life of the plant. It may even be kept through the winter on a kitchen windowsill. Though basil is said to keep flies away, it is certainly attractive to the white fly, an aphid which may in turn be kept away by putting a clove of garlic in the plant pot.

Was it the powerful smell of the herb which decided Salome to conceal the head of John the Baptist in a pot of basil? …

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