By Guido Masé
Italian culture has long been steeped in herbs—those aromatic, punchy plants used for both flavor and medicine. While day-to-day knowledge has mostly been passed through the folklore and oral tradition of common people, even Virgil, poet to the Roman emperor Augustus, celebrated the herbs found in his garden estate. A strong monastic tradition, where abbeys often functioned as hospitals and pharmacies recorded and preserved much of this knowledge; in fact, Europe's oldest chartered pharmacy (year 1221) was the Abbazia di Santa Maria Novella, in Florence. It is still famous for its medicinal “water,” which is a distillate of peppermint used to relieve digestive upset and calm “hysteria.”
Always welcome in the kitchen, herbs like basil, oregano, bay, garlic, and thyme are household names. Some, like the stinging nettle, are still staple foods for country folk. Still others—like mugwort, known as the scacciadiavolo (devil dispeller)—are used for both medicine and more esoteric pursuits: to banish devils, perhaps, but also to make strongly flavored aromatic extracts and distillates. These serve as a basis for one of Italy's most famous herbal exports: the amari, or bitters, which often come out either alongside the aperitivi or at the end of a rich meal. They always include some bitter herbs, like mugwort (in Lucano), gentian (in Campari), artichoke leaf (in Cynar), or rhubarb root (in Averna). To these are added warming, flavorful botanicals ranging from orange peel to cardamom, star anise, and various mints. These blends, thought to originate from a mysterious remedy the physician Galen called "theriac,” keep digestion humming along and are also taken as general tonics. With a bottle of spirits or strong red wine, it is easy to start experimenting with your own amari, all the while learning how to preserve the herbal harvest. These amazing medicinal plants, whether as an elderflower tisane my nonna would make to carry us through the winter months, or your own custom amari, deserve to be a part of our lives: with their help, we can craft some amazing kitchen alchemy.
Barolo Chinato – a simple amaro in a base of fortified wine Yield: about 25 ounces (750 mL)
1 bottle (750 mL) Barolo wine 1 ounce (30 mL) chinchona alcohol tincture (also known as quinine, or quina, tincture) 1 TBS dried artichoke leaf 1 TBS crushed, fresh juniper berries 1 TBS crushed, fresh rosemary leaf 2 tsp dried lemon balm leaf 2 tsp dried angelica root 1 tsp dried peppermint leaf 1 tsp dried, ground cloves (or 5–6 dried whole cloves) 1 tsp dried, ground cinnamon ½ cup (100 g) granulated sugar Add the cinchona tincture to the wine and stir well. In the bottom of a quart-sized mason jar, combine all the herbs. Pour in the wine/cinchona mix, reserving the wine bottle. Steep for 3 weeks, strain, discard the herbs, and add the sugar. Stir well. Use the reserved wine bottle for storage. A dose is ½ to 1 ounce, sipped slowly after meals.