A Beginner’s Guide to Tuscan Herbs

From sage to wild fennel fronds, fresh herbs can add instant flavor and brightness—and some Italian flair—to your food
June 10, 2020 Updated: June 12, 2020

Tuscan cooking, and Italian cooking in general, rely heavily on fresh herbs. You won’t find dried herbs in our spice racks; instead, we often pick them directly from a pot or the garden, following seasonal availability. 

There are perennial herbs, such as rosemary and sage, that are a constant in many traditional dishes throughout the year, from roasted meat to baked fish. Other herbs appear in our cooking only during their peak season: think of summertime basil and wild fennel, which marry beautifully with other ingredients that share the same season, like ripe tomatoes and new potatoes.

I’ve always had plenty of fresh herbs at my disposal, both where I live now, on a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside, and where I grew up.

My grandma’s house was shaded by a bay tree. All throughout the year, sage bushes grew underneath the olive trees, and enormous rosemary plants along the fence. Wild fennel and calamint, a Mediterranean member of the mint family, would appear after the frost, welcoming the good season. And in the summer, my grandma grew basil and parsley in her vegetable garden.

This is why I use fresh herbs in almost every dish I cook—always paired with a healthy amount of extra virgin olive oil—following habits passed down from my family and Tuscan heritage. 

Let’s have a look at the most common herbs found in Tuscan cuisine. If you introduce these fresh herbs into your recipes, you’ll instantly add some Italian flair to your food.

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Grow your own herb garden for fresh herbs at your fingertips. (Von Magdalena Kucova/Shutterstock)

Sage (Salvia)

Sage, rosemary, and garlic are often considered the sacred triad of Tuscan seasoning. Finely minced and mixed with salt, they become a versatile and ubiquitous seasoning that can be used as a  rub for any meat, or even sprinkled over focaccia just before baking.

This flavor scheme appears in almost every Tuscan meat roast—pork, beef, turkey, chicken, rabbit, lamb, you name it. It works just as well with fish—think about a whole roasted sea bream or sea bass—or with a tray of vegetables, such as potatoes, pumpkin, or onions.

Sage becomes a protagonist, though, when you fry it. Crisp the leaves in butter to dress ravioli, or in olive oil to flavor boiled cannellini beans. Or, dip them in batter first, and deep-fry them until puffed and golden for an unforgettable appetizer.

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Sage. (Evgeny Karandaev/Shutterstock)

Rosemary (Rosmarino)

Rosemary grows in big bushes, a perennial ornament to Tuscan fields and gardens. The herb is commonly used on roasted meat and fish, and makes a perfect co-star for chickpeas and potatoes. 

Rosemary also plays an important role in Tuscan baking. Just before Easter, in all the bakeries of Florence, you’ll find pan di ramerino, a sweet bread bun studded with raisins, glossed with a sugar syrup, and perfumed with rosemary. The same flavor combination again appears just before All Saints’ Day in pan co’ santi, a loaf of bread heavy with raisins and walnuts, rich with olive oil and wine, and speckled with black pepper and rosemary. 

And don’t forget to add a few rosemary needles to your grape schiacciata, or to your castagnaccio, a chestnut cake made with raisins and pine nuts.

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Rosemary. (Nataliia K/Shutterstock)

Calamint (Nepitella)

Known as nepitella in Tuscany and mentuccia in Rome, calamint tastes like a mellow mint, with fresh oregano undertones. It usually grows wild in the fields, along cobblestone pathways and hedgerows. It is used heavily in Tuscan cooking, as we could never imagine mushrooms or artichokes without it.

You can grill porcini with a few sprigs of nepitella and a clove of garlic, or make a pasta sauce with dried porcini and nepitella. Olive oil-preserved mushrooms are usually flavored with the herb, along with garlic and black peppercorns. Since mushrooms and eggplants often have the same meaty texture and a similar smoky flavor when cooked, I like to add a few leaves to my sautéed or grilled eggplants, too.

As for artichokes, you can trim their tough outer leaves, thinly slice them, and then sautée them with nepitella to make a pasta sauce. Or, you can even stuff them with parsley and nepitella, plus a good handful of pancetta.

If you can’t find nepitella, try a combination of fresh oregano and mint instead.

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Calamint, or nepitella. (Bonchan/Shutterstock)

Wild Fennel (Finocchietto Selvatico)

Wild fennel is easy to spot from afar. It usually grows in between the spring and summer, when you’ll see its feathery green fronds lining country roads, along with poppies, mint, and other wild herbs. In the summer, the plants grow tall, with yellow umbrella-shaped flowers. Even if you can find it at your local farmers market, nothing beats walking just outside and plucking a few fresh fronds for your next meal.

Unlike its cultivated counterpart, wild fennel does not produce a bulb, only stalks and feathery green fronds. It is delicate and herbaceous, with a slight sweetness and clean scent of anise, just like the aroma of the sweet, crisp bulbs you can buy at the market. 

In the Tuscan culinary tradition, all parts of wild fennel have important uses: fronds, stalks, seeds, even flowers and pollen.

Fennel seeds are widely used in many traditional recipes, such as finocchiona, a Florentine cured pork meat whose name and distinct taste come from fennel seeds. Another recipe where wild fennel is fundamental is roasted pork liver: In this case, the dried stalks are used to skewer pieces of pork liver, which have been seasoned lavishly with salt, black pepper, and fennel seeds and wrapped in fat to roast. The anise aroma of the fennel marries beautifully with the rich and slightly sweet liver.

I am partial to the fronds, though, for their gentle herbaceous scent. I like to use them with roasted fish, or in a pesto with almonds and Pecorino cheese, ideal for dressing fresh pasta or potato gnocchi.

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Wild fennel. (Scisetti Alfio/Shutterstock)

Parsley (Prezzemolo)

“Sei come il prezzemolo!” “You’re like parsley!” This Italian saying, often delivered with a tone of annoyance, means that you show up everywhere, and are impossible not to bump into—in reference to an old-fashioned habit of sprinkling finely chopped parsley on almost everything. Parsley has always been widely used in Italian cooking, and the plant grows nearly everywhere, too.

Still, parsley is an underrated herb, often considered generic and lacking in personality. It’s no wonder: supermarket varieties are overgrown, with enormous, tough leaves that have already lost all their fragrance. 

Young, fresh parsley is a completely different matter. Its tender leaves have a fresh, green, and slightly woody taste, with plenty of personality to add to a dish. It especially complements briny ingredients, such as capers and olives, and most kinds of fish.

I mostly use parsley with seafood—such as in spaghetti alle vongole, where a sprinkling of leaves brightens up the dish—and to make salsa verde. This is a thick and vinegary sauce made from plenty of parsley, capers, breadcrumbs soaked in vinegar, finely chopped or mashed boiled eggs, anchovies, and plenty of extra virgin olive oil. The sauce is then commonly used with boiled fish, vegetables, and meat—especially beef tongue and lampredotto, boiled cow stomach, which is dressed and sandwiched in a panino for a quintessential Florentine street food.

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Parsley. (Romiri/Shutterstock)

Other Herbs

Basil (Basilico): Basil is the scent of summer. In our vegetable garden, there’s always a patch of it growing, in the shade of an olive tree. I like to add a few leaves to a pan of sautéed zucchini, or a tomato salad, or a panzanella, and a leaf always goes into a jar of homemade tomato sauce or whole peeled tomatoes. Along with garlic, basil is also the unmistakable smell of pappa al pomodoro, Tuscany’s tomato bread soup. We also like to rub the leaves on our bare skin to protect it from mosquito bites.

Tarragon (Dragoncello): Sienese tarragon, which is milder and more delicate than the French variety, is the stuff of legend. It is very difficult to find or buy; legend has it that the only way to grow dragoncello is to receive a plant as a gift from someone who already has it in their garden. It is used in Siena to make a pesto, as well as a sauce that  is very similar to salsa verde.

Oregano (Origano): This is probably the only herb we use dried instead of fresh. It grows on the coast, especially in the South of Italy, and has a distinct Mediterranean taste. Pair it with tomatoes and peppers, and sprinkle it over mozzarella or pizza.

Marjoram (Maggiorana): An herb in the same family as oregano, marjoram is more common in Liguria than in Tuscany. It is mainly used with eggs, meat, mushrooms, and fish, but in our region, it is the herb of choice for seasoning tortelli maremmani, the large ricotta and spinach tortelli from the south coast of Tuscany.

Bay leaf (Alloro): I almost automatically add a bay leaf to all my meat sauces and beef or fish stews. The herb plays an important role in cooking with wild game, too. 

Juniper berries (Ginepro): Fresh or dried, these berries can be sparingly used with game. The berries will enhance the wild flavor of the meat, as they have the same origin: the undergrowth of the woods. 

Thyme (Timo): Also known as pepolino, thyme is used in soups, roasted potatoes, and grilled meat. Along the Tuscan coast, it is also the herb of choice for seafood dishes.

Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan born and bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com

 

RECIPE: Tuscan Rosemary, Sage, and Garlic Herb Salt

RECIPE: Fried Sage Leaves

RECIPE: Italian Potato Salad With Wild Fennel, Capers, and Olives

RECIPE: Italian Salsa Verde With Parsley and Capers