ORIGANUM: HERB OF THE YEAR FOR 2005
Outstanding Oreganos and Mild-Mannered Marjoram
Presented by Susan Belsinger
Marjoram sings of sweet earth's flowers,
and oregano summons the spicy powers.
was named by the Greeks from oros, "mountain," and ganos,
"joy." Its history, thirteen hundred years longer than
marjoram's, is mainly medicinal, with the relief of ailments from
toothaches to opium addiction claimed by a long list of herbalists.
Native Americans have known oregano for generations and have used
it as a medicinal tea and as a flavoring for meats. The Spanish
and Italians began recording its use for cooking during the fourteenth
century, especially in meat and vegetable stews, and with shellfish.
Since World War II, when spice merchants began promoting and importing
it in quantities, oregano has moved from obscurity to being one
of the most popular dried herbs in the United States.
myths and lovely uses surround sweet marjoram, while herbal remedies
and hearty dishes are associated with oregano, its close cousin.
Marjoram has long been one of the most popular culinary herbs. Its
cultivation in the Mediterranean has been recorded for twelve centuries,
spreading from its native Portugal to central Europe. Recipes dating
from the Renaissance call for marjoram in salads, in egg dishes,
with rice, and with every variety of meat and fish. It was used
to flavor beer before hops, and as a tea in England before Eastern
teas were imported.
Marjoram's fragrance is still prized by perfume and soap makers,
as well as by cooks. I share with the bees the enjoyment of marjoram's
blossoms at the end of the summer. While drying the clusters of
small purple flowers, I anticipate the further pleasure of our herb
and flower potpourri. The Romans, who recognized and chronicled
the sensual delights of many plants, made sachets of marjoram, oregano,
rosemary, and lavender to perfume linens and baths. The sweetness
of marjoram's aroma and the spiciness of oregano's complement one
another equally well in the kitchen. Their use together and the
similarity of their appearance and growing habits have caused problems
with identification for cooks and herbalists alike. It is worthwhile
to sort through the subspecies and cultivars, as flavor, aroma,
and cold-hardiness vary greatly.
marjoram, which is a tender perennial is classified as Origanum
majorana. Origanum xmajoricum is a hybrid cross of sweet marjoram
and Origanum vulgare, (some say subspecies virens), and is sold
as Italian oregano, Sicilian oregano, or hardy marjoram. Another
variety worth mentioning is Greek oregano, also called pot marjoram,
and like marjoram, is not winter-hardy. This is O. onites, with
a distinctive sharp aroma and spicy flavor that is preferred for
most Greek dishes. The aforementioned are the most popular origanums
for culinary use. True-to-type culinary marjoram and oregano are
mostly cutting-grown; marjoram has flowers ranging from white to
pale pink and the oreganos have white to purple blooms.
characteristics, which identify fresh marjoram are a perfume reminiscent
of sweet broom and mint, pale green leaves with faint silvery shadows,
and a slightly bitter resinous flavor. When dried, marjoram retains
its sweet aroma and its color becomes a pale grayish-green. Fresh
oregano has a spicier fragrance than marjoram, with hints of clove
and balsam. O. xmajoricum, which is commonly cultivated in the United
States, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, combines the sweetness of marjoram
with the spiciness of oregano, and is my personal favorite in the
the nomenclature for O. xmajoricum may be confounding, there is
no need to be confused about this excellent herb if you let your
nose, mouth, and eyes be your guides. If it smells sweet like sweet
marjoram then you are on the right track. As Rex Talbert phrases
it, “You have to use your nose to find a good O. xmajoricum”.
If it lacks sweetness, and just smells savory and pungent, then
this is not the herb of which we speak. When tasting a leaf, it
should tingle on your tongue with the familiar spicy pungency of
oregano, yet the sweetness should round out the spice, and it should
be only very mildly hot. If it is pungent and biting hot on the
tongue, with a rather dull spicy taste you don’t have the
right plant. Sometimes, we might desire a hot, spicy-tasting oregano,
however, that is not what we are looking for here.
reasons for this vast variation in aroma and taste of O. xmajoricum
are due to a number of things. According to Rex Talbert, “A
hybrid doesn’t necessarily carry the same physical characteristics
everytime, the chemistry can also vary .” Just as the same
parents don’t have the same child everytime they reproduce.
Another surprising fact, is that although O. xmajoricum is a cross
of O. majorana and O. vulgare, the subspecies may vary without being
acknowledged. In other words, O. majorana is a given in the cross,
but the O. vulgare might be O. vulgare subsp. vulgare, O. vulgare
subsp. hirtum, O. vulgare subsp. virens, and so on. Rex Talbert
concludes, “In following the rules of taxonomic nomenclature
they do not identify the subspecies in the cross. These O. xmajoricum
are all legitimate hybrids, but are not necessarily the result of
the same taxa crossing.” And finally, each person has a variable
threshold of smell and taste, which is open to individual interpretation.
It is even said that females smell things differently than males
Origanum vulgare may be called practically anything, including wild
marjoram, winter marjoram, and wild oregano, and is generally not
the best flavor for culinary use. Most seed sold is either the tasteless
O. vulgare or a mixture of varieties. The first marjoram that I
purchased and brought to my garden was O. vulgare. Two years later
I spent a day digging out these very invasive plants, which I had
planted as a border for a small perennial garden. Though rangy,
it is attractive with its violet blooms, which are good in dried
arrangements. There are many variants of O. vulgare that are lovely
specimens and some of them are useful in the kitchen. A few of them
are O.v. ‘Aureum’, O.v. ‘Aureum Crispum’,
O.v. ‘Compactum’, O.v. ‘Gold Tip’, and O.v.
plants known as O. vulgare, which are native to Europe, range from
downright burning hot on the tongue to just sort of bland and not
very tasty. Greek oregano, O. onites is another example of a hot,
spicy herb. Leaves dry to a lighter color and their flavor is very
pungent, spicy with a hint of peppermint, pine, and sometimes clove.
Both of these oreganos' leaves are more oval, pointed, and larger
fresh oregano and marjoram are not always available in American
markets, it is worth the small effort to cultivate them yourself.
O. xmajoricum is a hardy perennial which will survive northern winters
if well mulched. O. onites and O. majorana are perennials only in
mild Mediterranean-like climates, but both do well in containers
with enriched, well-drained soil indoors for the winter.
The Origanum family likes good drainage and prefers to be kept free
of weeds, with enough room around each plant for its fine-branching
lateral roots. They do best in full sun, with fertilization about
once a month. They are fairly unfussy plants—if cut back early
in the season just before they form flower buds--you will get an
extra harvest. They can be pruned after flowering, and again in
the early fall--plants will profit from this usage-- giving handsome,
bushy plants and many savory dishes. They do need to be divided
every two or three years as they spread and use up all of the nutrients
in the soil.
marjoram and oregano dry well and retain their flavor, if the stems
are cut and laid on screens, or tied in bunches, and hung upside
down in a warm dry place. In fact, I prefer the dried herb to the
fresh in some dishes.
herb retains excellent flavor when dried, in fact I prefer it dried
for some hardy winter soups, stews, casseroles, from pilafs to polenta,
and of course in tomato sauces. Crumbling some sweet-scented dried
oregano into olive oil, when making garlic bread elevates this simple
everyday dish to another level. The repertoire of a culinary artist
would be notably lacking without the Origanums.
Some of this information is excerpted from a forthcoming article
in the Herbarist 2004 titled ‘Our Favorite Oregano in the
Kitchen: Origanum xmajoricum’ by Susan Belsinger and Tina
Marie Wilcox and some is adapted from Herbs in the Kitchen by Carolyn
Dille and Susan Belsinger, Interweave Press, 1991.
and Oregano Salsa
this as a dip for chips, an accompaniment to southwestern meals
or any grilled vegetables, fish fowl, or meats. I love it with eggs
and potatoes for breakfast. In the summer harvest season, make large
batches of this and can it so that you have this taste of summer
all year long. If you like it really spicy, you can add a few more
chiles. My friend and herbal cooking cohort, Marion Spear, inspired
me to add cumin to salsa.
about 3 cups
6 jalapeno peppers or serrano peppers
2 to 2 ½ pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced fine
1 small onion, diced fine
3 garlic cloves, minced
Generous tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin seed, optional
About 2 teaspoons lime juice or 1 to 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Remove and discard the stems, seeds and ribs from the peppers. Dice
them fine. Combine the peppers, tomatoes, onion, garlic, and oregano
in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper, and cumin seed if desired.
Add lime juice or vinegar. The salsa is best if allowed to stand
at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Store covered in the refrigerator.
Serve at cool room temperature.
Mediterranean Garlic Bread
enough of this that everyone gets at least 2 (or more) slices, because
this is so good, you can’t eat just one! For the best flavor,
use Origanum xmajoricum. If you use sundried tomatoes packed in
oil, use a little of that oil as part of the ½ cup of olive
oil. If using dried sundried tomatoes, you will need to reconstitute
them. Do this by pouring hot (not quite boiling) water over them
just so they are covered and let them sit for 20 to 30 minutes.
Pour the water off, chop them fine, and continue with the recipe.
enough for about 12 slices of bread
cup finely minced sundried tomatoes
½ cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
About 12 slices good-quality rustic bread
a small bowl combine the sundried tomatoes, oil, garlic, oregano,
and parmesan and blend well. Either toast the bread and spoon the
mixture onto each slice, or spoon it onto the slices, stack it,
and wrap it in foil. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 350 º F until