“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” says mad Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This was not a new thought, as the ancient Romans placed rosemary in the hands of their dead, as a remembrance. Nor is it a thought that is confined to antiquity, as Australians remember their war dead with sprigs of rosemary in their buttonholes on ANZAC Day. Interestingly, science is now finding that this is not merely a romantic fancy. A key compound in rosemary is rosmarinic acid, which is so effective in aiding memory that it is now being tested as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. So it is “for remembrance” indeed!

But that’s not all it does. Rosmarinic acid possesses antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, and has been used to treat peptic ulcers, arthritis, cataracts, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and bronchial asthma. And here you just thought it was a fragrant little herb. (And if you have ever grown it, you know that it is wildly fragrant when fresh. I have a friend in Australia who has it as a hedge around her garden, and just brushing past it is an intoxicating experience.)

My Aussie friend’s hedge thrives because South Australia possesses qualities similar to the herb’s native Mediterranean–mild winters, warm summers, and fairly arid conditions. In Mediterranean Europe, wild rosemary grew most commonly (and profusely) along the coast, and it was from this that the plant got its scientific name–Rosmarinus officinalis–from the Latin ros maris, which means “dew of the sea.” However, though it likes warmth, it grows as far north as southern England, where the Romans carried it when they invaded. In colder climes, it was “carefully and curiously kept in pots, set into the stoves and cellers, against the injuries of their cold Winters,” wrote John Gerard in his 1597 guide to herbs.

The Greeks and Romans loved rosemary for culinary reasons, though the Romans found the herb usefully medicinal as well. In the Middle Ages, rosemary was valued more as medicine–and yet it still appeared in many gardens and recipes, as anything with a strong flavor was valued at that time. In time, rosemary grew to be considered almost exclusively as a culinary herb (though it seems to be regaining its luster as a panacea in more recent days).

England has had a long-standing love affair with rosemary (especially for roasts), if not from the time of the Romans, then at the very least from the time of the Norman Conquest, when the Normans reintroduced the herb. And yet there are almost no regions of the world more closely associated with the herb than Italy and France’s Provence. In fact, in Italy, butchers often dress meat with rosemary prior to sale, or offer free rosemary with each sale.

© 2011 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, History, Language, Nutrition

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