Growing basil is a basic link between the past and future

September 07, 1994|By Tony Mafale | Tony Mafale,Special to The Sun

Every summer all the way back to the time when the Phoenicians and Greeks colonized Sicily, someone in my family has, more than likely, been growing basil. I cannot imagine a summer without basil; its brilliant green leaves setting off a bed of scarlet salvia, its fragrance lingering on still summer evenings, its sweet flavor complementing our dinners.

For over 15 years I have been cultivating this versatile annual, the same as my father, my grandmother, my great-grandfather, and all of my ancestors before me. Imagine the horticultural wisdom that benefits my basil garden. My father puts fish heads and entrails around his basil plants. He says this gives the plants stronger stalks and larger, greener leaves. My grandmother throws egg shells around hers, claiming they make the leaves sweeter. And Aunt Marie plants her basil around a whitewashed statue of the Blessed Mother, for obvious reasons. All of my basil-growing relatives also keep a small lavastone in their gardens to protect the basil from drought. My grandmother brought the original lavastone over from Sicily in the 1920s. She tells us when she was a child she saw the sky turn to fire and black smoke. That was the 1908 eruption of Mount Etna that buried a neighboring village and killed her uncle's cow. After the lava cooled, my great-grandfather broke off a piece of the rough, black stone and stuck it in his basil garden.

While it is true my family believes we grow the most magnificent basil bushes in Baltimore, I can offer no secrets to our continuing success. My experience with basil is that it grows with the tenacity of dandelions, despite the driest summers, and the most negligent of gardeners. I should know. My approach to basil is the quintessence of low maintenance gardening. And that is part of the herb's perennial beauty.

Every spring just after the last frost date, give or take a few weeks, I purchase four to six basil plants from Phil's nursery up the street. My grandmother and father start their basil from seed at home and still believe I do the same.

Growing basil from seedlings is so easy that even the most inexperienced gardener will find success unavoidable. I strive for regular watering, but ultimately fail. Typically a week will pass and I'll be driving somewhere in my car, or lying in bed around 2 a.m., when I remember that I have forgotten to water the basil. A good rule to follow is if the leaves droop and start to brown on the edges, water the plants. As soon as the basil begins to flower in mid-June, start plucking the flower stems off. This forces the plant's energy into its leaves and makes the basil bushier. The plants should be over 1 foot tall by solstice. That's when I start harvesting a few of the leaves for cooking.

Basil is amazingly versatile in the kitchen. I'll pinch five or eight leaves and drop them into a simmering pot of Great Northern beans with celery, carrots, onions, garlic, and a small bit of pork. My family will eat from this pot for two or three days. In mid-summer, I top fat slices of vine-ripened tomatoes with home-made mozzarella, large, furled basil leaves, olive oil, salt and pepper. This tomato-basil salad is a staple at every one of my summer dinner parties.

As the basil bushes start crowding my garden, their leaves start cropping up in all types of dishes -- eggs, stir-fry, roasts, tomato sauces, soups, salsa, salads. The most important use of basil in my household, however, is pesto. It is the dish that links me to my ancestors. My great-grandmother would make fresh pasta in the mornings and then grind the pesto sauce by hand with a mortar and pestle. Basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and cheese would soon form a slightly crumbly, vivid, green paste.

I make the dish by hand to strengthen the ancestral bond, and because I believe it tastes considerably better than pesto homogenized in a blender. Throughout August and

September, when we have pesto at least once a week, my thumb and index finger are always stained dark green from picking the leaves by hand. The entire first floor of my house begins to smell like basil.

By late summer, basil has taken on a somewhat mystical dimension for me and I begin to believe the herb has something to do with the meaning of life. No wonder when the leaves begin to pale in October, a part of me begins to mope about the house. By this time, however, my wife is content not to see another plate of pesto for the rest of her life. (Come March, she'll be of a different mind.)

This summer my 2-year-old son, Jordan, helped plant the basil. He stepped on one of the plants, but it has grown back, resilient, weedlike. He knows that we will eat the plants because I told him we would, but he prefers his peanut butter and crackers. One day his taste will change and he will walk away with a piece of my lavastone to place in his basil garden, not so much to protect it from drought, but because it is a family tradition.

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