Tuscan culinary herbs from the source

Herbs are among the first things to pop up in spring in my garden here in Ann Arbor. This winter was mild enough that the parsley came back, and is now a foot high and bushy with shiny leaves. The lavender is putting out new leaves, the peppermint is too, and even the rosemary survived the winter. Looking at my super-happy, healthy parsley, makes me think about Pierre.

During last fall’s Zingerman’s Food Tour to Tuscany, culinary herbalist Pierre Cousea visited us at our villa in the Arno valley, from his home nearby. He loves talking about his herbs – they are like his children, which he tends but does not coddle. He doesn’t water them; the herbs need to hold their own through the summer heat.

He says that each herb has its peak moment, a short span during its blooming time when it is at the pinnacle of potency. At that perfect moment for each plant, Pierre harvests the herb, by hand. He harvests the flowers rather than the leaves, which he then air dries. The flowers, he says, contain the pure expression of the herb at its
strongest, if it’s picked at the right time. It’s painstaking work, and it takes thousands of flowers to fill up a small jar.

When Pierre visited he brought an array of jars of herbs, which he opened and passed around for us to smell – the aromas were powerful, and it was intriguing to see the tiny flowers and buds rather than leaves as I’m more used to.

Pierre also makes aromatic herb salts – he blends sea salt with herbs, and other elements such as citrus and hot pepper flakes, to create wonderful culinary combinations. He names his blends and provides his recommendations of what kinds of dishes each blends works best with. Here’s a very short clip of Pierre describing how he makes his salt blends.

Pierre says that the herbs are potent yet delicate, and that they should be added, sparingly, to a dish only near the end of the cooking time. So, when I made this pizza for dinner last weekend, I sprinkled on oregano flowers, as well as some of my Il Grande Sale aromatic herb salt (with thyme, pepperoncini flakes, and scallions), at the moment I took the pizza out of the oven. The hot cheese warmed the herbs, and the aroma and flavor were just right. Yum.

I purchased several jars from Pierre to bring home, and had intended to give them as gifts, but somehow I never got around to giving them away! I’m enjoying experimenting with them, with awareness of the love and care that went in to them and marveling at the depth of flavor they bring to my cooking.