The culinary symbolist

An aspect of cookery we think indefensibly neglected, is the symbolism of ingredients. This is of course vastly too large a topic to be more than touched upon; but up here in the kitchen of the High Doganate, where we try to maintain the liturgical attitude, we allow the ingredients to speak to us. For even when cooking alone, there is a dimension of conversation. City folk may find it hard to converse with what came shrink-wrapped, boxed, or tinned, yet we carry from childhood the most poignant memories of foods grown & harvested entirely by human hands; not “packaged,” but gathered in the conscience of thanksgiving.

Rosemary has an hundred household uses; not only its needles but its flowers & its oils. A bough of fresh rosemary hanging by an open window in hot summer will freshen & cool a room. Then burnt in the fire, when it is dry in autumn, it imparts an aroma that is sublimely sweet. It may be taken in a pipe, as tobacco. It has been used since ancient times in tinctures against rheumatism, & the biles; as a gargle, or in a tea; the flowers cut into salads, or the leaves cooked into beans, not only for their taste but their effect in counteracting flatulence. With lamb & mutton there is no better herb, among all those in the broad mint family; or baked with potatoes, or in breads, & many soups. We once tasted a Greek wine resinated with rosemary, from Crete we think it was, & with snails that had been steeped in it.

There is no end to these utilitarian considerations; but they extend into symbol through one of the qualities of rosemary long discerned. It has been held to improve the memory, & both worn & ingested to this end.

It is pre-eminently the herb of memory, & in heating just now some enormous Italian beans (truly, fagioli corona) in olive oil with crushed garlic, rosemary, & chillies, we were remembering Saint Thomas More. “As for rosemary,” he wrote, “I lett it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because ’tis an herb sacred to Remembraunce & therefor to Friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language.”

And that famed herbalist of Warwickshire, at the shepherd’s cottage in his Winter’s Tale:

Give me those Flowres there; Reverend Sirs,
For you, there’s Rosemary & Rue, these keepe
Seeming, & savour all the Winter long:
Grace, & Remembrance be to you both,
And welcome to our Shearing.

The word has alternative etymologies. It is Latin ros-mare (dew of the sea), for its ability to flourish where there is no rain, but only the moisture of the sea breezes. Or if thou wilt, “Rose of Mary,” to commemorate that moment in legend, when the Holy Family were fleeing into Egypt. Our Lady was wearing a blue cloak, which she cast over white flowering rosemary while she rested. Lifting the cloak, she found the flowers had all turned blue.