Maya is a herbologist, chef and gardener based in London. After graduating with a Herbology Diploma from the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, where she specialised in herbs for women’s health, Maya has worked in gardens across the country including the Chelsea Physic Garden and Soho Farm House. She is also a Ballymaloe trained chef and has given talks and workshops on the culinary importance and history of herbs. Here, Maya shares the benefits of rosemary and two recipes: one for a herby pesto, the other for a refreshing lemonade.
There’s a tendency to think of our domestic herbs as just that, domesticated. But the origins of rosemary are unquestionably wild. Native to Mediterranean landscapes, the rockier the better, this herb travelled with the Romans to British shores, along with other herbs – such as bay and nettles – that served both as medicines and food, and held significant symbolic value. This 'dew of the sea' (Rosmarinus) is often thought of in romantic tones. But just like the hardiest of plants, Rosemary has proved itself time and again as a plant that can adapt – and is actively encouraged – where humans are. Rosemary comes from the Lamiaceae family, more commonly known as the mint family. Some of the strongest, aromatic and most loved herbs can be found here, such as lavender. But where lavender soothes, rosemary energises.
Known as an uplifting, stimulating tonic, rosemary helps improve digestion thanks to its mildly bitter properties; but there is more to this herb than just this traditional culinary pairing. Rosemary is inherently warming. An aromatic, lightly bitter herb that is full of antioxidants, as well as vitamin A, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium and iron, it is also antiseptic, antimicrobial and antifungal. Studies have shown rosemary improves cognitive function, in particular memory; Ophelia’s oft quoted ‘rosemary for remembrance’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is entirely accurate. What science is now proving, the Romans already knew – they used to study adorned with garlands of rosemary. Whilst I don’t adorn myself entirely like the Romans, I’ll often put a sprig behind my ear or make a strong rosemary brew when I really need to focus, and find it helps to stimulate my brain whilst the scent is also incredibly restorative.
Rosemary has been shown to cause an increase in acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that drugs treating neurodegenerative diseases also aim to increase. Its stimulating properties have also been utilised for years to help with hair growth, with many mainstream shampoos made especially for that purpose using rosemary extracts. As well as being a stimulating herb, rosemary is also restorative. Science isn’t needed to prove this, although it is there – anyone who knows the sweet and refreshing scent of rosemary knows the almost instant sense of joy and calmness this can induce. This apparently contradictory tendency of being energising and soothing is demonstrated throughout history, with rosemary having been used ritually in both weddings and funerals.
In her seminal and ahead-of-its-time book Honey From A Weed (1986), cookery writer Patience Grey alluded to the fact that she really only understood rosemary once she’d tasted it growing freely in the rocky wilderness of southern Italy, commenting that it was more perfumed in the wild, and therefore far superior and preferred in the kitchen, especially when used fresh. Whilst we may not be able to have the luxury of experiencing rosemary from wilder habitats, incorporating this plant into our daily lives not only brings health benefits, but reminds us that no matter how domesticated, tied-down or tied-in we might feel, we are always connected to nature.
As well as being inherently warming, perfect for cooler days, it is also packed full of immune boosting antibacterial goodness, such as garlic and lemon juice (and zest).
For those lucky enough to be growing rosemary, the benefits of making this pesto now (late summer/early autumn) is that you’re giving your rosemary shrub a good prune just when it needs it, encouraging fresh growth and flowering for next spring.
This recipe expands and contracts depending on serving portions and how you choose to use it. Pasta is one way, however feel free to experiment by using with fish, marinating meat, incorporating into a grain based salad, drizzling over grilled halloumi, or spreading over a slice of dense seeded loaf. You can even add a spoonful to salad dressings.
It’s best to eat fresh, preferably within 2-3 days of making.
⅓ cup of sunflower seeds
1 ½ - 2 ½ sprigs of rosemary
Handful of flat-leafed parsley, roughly chopped
70 -100ml of extra virgin olive oil
½ - 1 clove of garlic, smashed
Sea salt and pepper
Small handful of grated cheese such as parmesan (optional)
- Toast the sunflower seeds over a low to moderate heat, checking and shaking the pan regularly to ensure the seeds don't burn. Once they start to pop and turn a lovely brown, move to a bowl or plate and leave to cool.
- Next, smash the garlic clove, roughly chop the parsley and strip the rosemary sprigs of their leaves – if using a food processor or blender they can be put in the same container. If using a pestle and mortar, finely chop rosemary leaves and add ingredients.
- Add oil. If using the pestle and mortar add oil slowly whilst crushing mixture with pestle.
- Add the seasoning, a good squeeze of lemon, and cheese if using.
- Add the seeds once cooled – I usually add half to begin with and add more depending if the flavour and texture require it.
- Taste – very important to taste and adjust seasoning or acidity (lemon) according to individual taste. More cheese, garlic can also be added and if the texture needs more bite.
- Blitz again, taste, repeat step 7 if needed.
- Serve with pasta – or however you’d prefer!
Feel free to double or triple the recipe, these measurements make enough for about 8-12 drinks depending on portion sizes!
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
3 - 6 lemons (preferably unwaxed and organic, especially if you want to use the zest)
6 - 12 springs of fresh rosemary
Carbonated or still water to serve
- First make your simple syrup. Heat the water and sugar together in a pan over a moderate to low heat, stirring occasionally.
- Once dissolved add your rosemary sprigs.
- Keep on moderate heat until you can start to smell the rosemary – this should take a couple of minutes.
- Take off the heat and leave to infuse.
- Taste after 30-40 minutes. If you feel the taste is strong enough, strain the rosemary and leave to cool completely. Otherwise leave longer to infuse, checking until you’re happy that you can taste the rosemary.
- Whilst the syrup is cooling, juice your lemons – remember to zest first and keep the zest in the freezer for use in other dishes. Throwing some in with the rosemary pesto adds an extra happy zing!
- When syrup is cooled, add lemon juice to taste. There should be a lovely balance between sweet, sour and a teeny hint of bitterness.
- You have two options now – you can mix with water (carbonated, spring or tap) and serve or, my preferred method, you can bottle this as a cordial and mix individual portions as and when needed.
- Serve with rosemary flowers if in bloom, or a sprig of rosemary – and of course ice in hot weather!
Words and recipes by Maya Thomas.
Portrait by Camilla Greenwell.
Read more about Maya's work on The Modern Herbal, which she co-founded with Carolina Otero.