Herbs, spices and nuts

Herbs, spices and nuts

Antonio Carluccio
13 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
Laura Edwards

Almost as important as the vegetables themselves are the additional flavourings we use to enhance particular vegetable dishes. Herbs and spices have been used in this way since the very earliest times, the former particularly in Italy. Most herbs and spices are plant-based – apart from salt, of course – which is why they are included here. It is commonly thought to be a myth that herbs and spices were used in medieval times to disguise the flavour of meat that was slightly off; but both also had ante-putrefactive properties, making that same meat safer to eat – as well, of course, as making it more interesting and palatable. For herbs and spices not only add taste, but their essential oils contribute to the digestibility of many foods. The rosemary and garlic served with lamb perform a dual purpose (as does the apple served with pork, or the orange juice with duck): they cut through and improve the digestibility of the fat. Herbs and spices are just as useful, in a flavouring and health sense, when used with vegetables.

Nuts are not vegetables, but they are used in significant ways in Italian cooking, and they too are plant-based.

Herbs and spices

Most of the culinary herbs we use are native to the Mediterranean, and it was the Ancient Romans who introduced many of them (and so many other things, such as garlic, onions, fruits like apples and cherries, and chestnuts) to the rest of Europe, including the cold north and Britain. Spices, on the other hand, play a lesser role in the cooking of Italy now, because most of them are exotic, coming from the tropics, rather than indigenous to the Mediterranean. They are usually the seeds of plants (like fennel), or the bark (cinnamon), pods (vanilla) or buds (cloves). They were as fashionable in the Middle Ages in Italy, as they were in Britain. I discovered this when I was trying to recreate a Bartholomeo Scappi dish (a sixteenth-century chef) for a television programme for the BBC. While it has been said that spices were added in England to hide the smell and taste of old meat, in Italy, especially in Rome, spices were added to make dishes more exotic for those high up in the Catholic Church (Scappi cooked for cardinals and popes in Rome). The porchetta (stuffed and roasted piglet) I cooked to remember those times included cinnamon, cloves, saffron, sugar, pepper, chilli, ginger and coriander, and not in small pinches either. Interestingly, some of these spices are still very much used and loved in Italian cooking, but they are used much more subtly

Before I go on to describe the individual selected herbs and spices, you must allow me to have a little rant. I think the worst way to use herbs is in the well-known sauce bolognaise (note, not bolognese, which is Italian). Bolognaise was invented in Britain and is only cooked there and a few other parts of the world. The mistaken principle seems to be that, assuming the dish is Mediterranean, a multitude of herbs, spices and flavourings like garlic, nutmeg, clove, oregano, basil, parsley, celery, etc. need to be employed. Thyme in particular, in its dried form, is abundantly and indiscriminately used. No, no and NO! The original and traditional ragù bolognese does not contain any of the above-mentioned herbs. I have written in many of my books, and demonstrated on television, that a bolognese for me is a long-cooked sauce, which highlights the taste of the two meat components like beef and veal, or beef and pork (or even lamb as in southern Italy), flavoured only by vegetables, tomato purée, salt and pepper.

My involvement with herbs came early. My mother, as did most people living in houses with balconies, used to keep a few terracotta pots containing fresh herbs to use in cooking and salads. Basil, rosemary, parsley and sage were the most usual, and many people kept a few tomato plants. When I was about six or seven, and living in the small railway flat near where my father was the stationmaster, I was in charge of collecting the peppery and flavoursome rucola (rocket, or arugula) for the daily salad. The rucola grew wild by the side of the railway tracks, so it didn’t involve many food miles. Being so young, I was very proud to be doing something to contribute to the collective family pot.

Aniseed (anice) is a herbal plant from the same family as fennel and dill. The seeds have an intense flavour, which is used mostly in the drinks and confectionery industries. The Sardinians use aniseeds in sweet biscuits called anicini, and the anise-tasting seeds go very well with figs. They are also used in some savoury dishes, such as salads and fish.

His Majesty basil (basilico) is the herb I like the most. Very jokingly, I often say that I could make love on a bed of basil. But let’s keep it in the kitchen, where His Majesty finds many ways of making dishes, salads and soups taste like heaven. The most important use of basil is in pesto alla genovese, the world-famous sauce in which basil is married with garlic, pine nuts, grated Parmesan and olive oil; this is used to flavour pasta, gnocchi and minestrone, and as a dip or an addition to crostini. Basil crowns many pizzas and salads – a panzanella bread salad in particular – and it lends its flavour to many tomato sauces.

Basil is native to India rather than the Mediterranean. The Romans introduced it to Europe, where it has become very familiar, and central to Italian cuisine. In Greece, they have a very small-leaved basil plant, which has a very strong aroma; they use it in cooking, but also keep it on the windowsill in a flowerpot to keep mosquitoes at bay. This basil is much hardier than the larger-leaved basil (there are several types, most of them developed in Italy), and therefore easier to grow in more northerly gardens.

The sweet bay or bay laurel (alloro, lauro) is an evergreen tree native to Asia, but now well established in Europe. The aromatic leaves are useful in the kitchen. I use a couple of leaves when making stock, and when boiling chestnuts, as the leaves are antibacterial (you will find bay leaves in packs of dried figs to keep insects at bay). Tie a bay leaf in with other herbs for an aromi (bouquet garni), and place a couple of leaves on the base and top of a pâté. Use fresh leaves if you can, as the flavour is stronger than dried.

Capers (capperi) are the buds of a plant thought to be native to the Mediterranean. In Italy, capers are primarily grown on the hot islands of Pantelleria and Lipari, south of Sicily. The flower buds are picked before they open, then cured in vinegar, brine or salt. I think the salted ones are best, but they need to be soaked in some water, and drained well, before use. The intense flavour of capers is used in many ways in Italian cooking, particularly in salads and sauces; add them towards the end of cooking, so that their pungency is undiminished. They are one of the primary ingredients of a classic tartare sauce, and add their piquancy to the tuna sauce for vitello tonnato.

If the caper buds are allowed to grow on and flower, the plant develops a fruit, which is pickled as the caper berry.

Celery (sedano) leaves – literally the leaves from the tops of a head of celery – are mostly used to flavour broth or consommé in a similar way to lovage (a herb which is easy to grow at home, but impossible to find in shops). But you could use both, minimally and chopped, in stuffings for ravioli or vegetables, etc. Make your own celery salt by drying the leaves, then grinding them with coarse salt; keep in an airtight jar.

Chervil (cerfoglio) is an extraordinarily delicate little herbal plant, with a leaf that looks like flat-leaf parsley. In Italy, in season throughout the summer, it is used for its sweet and subtle, slightly liquoricey taste. Add it to sauces, salads, to steamed vegetables, to gentle broths such as stracciatella, but always at the last moment. It is one of the French fines herbes.

Chives (erba cipollina) belong to the onion family. They grow from tiny bulbs, and the edible, green, needle-like stalks are hollow, tasting like a cross between onion and garlic. The pretty purple flowers are edible as well. Finely chopped, chives are scattered on soups and salads to provide a delicate and light flavour. Chives are widely used, coarsely chopped, on salads, egg dishes and crostini.

Cinnamon (cannella, cinnamomo) is one of the most famous spices. It comes from the bark of an Asian tree, and has a strong, sweet flavour. It is used minimally in Italy, mostly in savoury dishes, adding richness to stews and sauces. It even features in a northern sausage risotto, revealing the influence of Venice, which was the main importer of eastern spices during the Middle Ages. Ground cinnamon is used as a flavouring for desserts as well, particularly in the Sicilian cannoli, and is occasionally sprinkled over fresh fruit.

Coriander (cilantro) (coriandolo) is relatively unknown in Italy, although it was familiar in the past. Now coriander is mostly associated with Chinese and Thai cooking and with some Middle Eastern cuisines. The leaves are used in cooking, to scatter at the end of cooking, or in salads. Coriander is a plant – like fennel – that produces both a herb, the leaves, and a spice, the seeds. Coriander seeds are, very curiously, sometimes used together with pistachios to flavour an Italian salami called mortadella. (Peppercorns are more common.) Coriander seeds are also used in syrups for liqueurs, and in the baking industry.

Coriander as a herb, and others like it, are reappearing in experimental cuisine in Italy, in an attempt to achieve new flavours. This can also involve wasabi from Japan, ginger, lemongrass and basil from Thailand, curry leaves or powder from India. However, it is not easy to use these herbs; in certain combinations only, they can fit very well with specific ingredients. The important thing is never to overdo it.

Dill (aneto) is another plant that produces both herb and spice. Because it closely resembles fennel (and is of the same botanical family), the Italians – who don’t use dill much – call it finocchio bastardo. The herb leaves are mostly used in fish dishes in northern countries like Scandinavia; they are most famously used in the curing of fresh salmon, gravadlax, and in the cooking of traditional crayfish (gamberi di fiume). Dill seeds are often seen in recipes for pickled cucumbers or gherkins, as they are considered to be digestive (and are the main ingredient in the dill water given to colicky babies).

Fennel (finocchio) is yet another plant that produces both herb and spice (and a vegetable, developed in Italy), all of which have a sweet anise flavour. The leaves are used elsewhere to flavour fish, but do not seem to be so popular in Italy. The seeds, however, are used in the south of Italy. A fennel flavour characterizes the liqueur Sambuca. Fennel seeds are also used in breads, in taralli, which are savoury biscuits based on olive oil, and in sweet biscuits. They find their way too into the salami industry, where they are used to flavour hot sausages, and particularly, finocchiona, a Tuscan speciality tasting of fennel.

Finocchietto selvatico, or wild fennel, is very special. It grows abundantly in Sicily, where it is used fresh, and is irreplaceable in the making of pasta con le sarde, a classic Palermo dish with sardines and wild fennel in the sauce (you can use fennel seeds instead). Naturally wild fennel, leaves and seeds, is also used for soups and for flavouring other vegetable dishes.

There are three types of marjoram (maggiorana): sweet or knotted marjoram, pot marjoram and wild marjoram or oregano (origano). They originated in Asia, but are now found all over Europe, both fresh and dried. Fresh they have a more delicate, minty scent; dried, the flavour is more intense. Marjoram is particularly popular in Liguria, where it is used in a stuffed breast of veal (cima all genovese) and in preboggion, a paste of green herbs used to fill a Ligurian ravioli called pansôti. Both, dried, are used as flavouring for pizza, for stuffings, and for sauces. Oregano, much more pungent than the other marjorams, is famous for its use in pizzaiola, a rich tomato sauce for beef. It is also used in biscuits, breads, and to flavour cured olives.

Of the various varieties of mint (menta, mentuccia, nepitella), peppermint is preferred in savoury dishes such as zucchini alla scapece (courgette very thinly sliced, then fried and marinated with oil, garlic, vinegar and mint). I use it too with roasted or grilled eel. Mint is good in salads, giving them a very refreshing fragrance. But I can’t understand the British mixture of mint and vinegar as an accompaniment to lamb…

The only parsley (prezzemolo) used by Italians is the flat-leaf one, which has a better flavour than the curled version. It is the major ingredient in salsa verde, a green sauce, and features in many fish and egg dishes, as well as being sprinkled on any number of finished dishes. As a result, there is a saying in Italy that someone who pops up everywhere, is omnipresent, is like parsley, ‘essere come il prezzemolo’!

Peppercorns (pepe) come in many colours – black, white, green and pink – and are the fruit of a vine native to India, Pakistan and Indonesia. Black and white peppercorns are used in Italy in stocks, and to season dishes and preserved products such as salume and hams. Always buy good peppercorns, buy them frequently, and only grind them just before use (or they will lose their essential oils).

Rosemary (rosmarino) is another typical Italian herb, which is used mostly with meat, especially roast meat. The fresh needles impart a very specific taste to chicken, veal, beef, lamb, game of any sort, but are used also in sauces – with the exception of bolognese sauce, where no herbs whatsoever are used. I use it with roast potatoes. Rosemary is cultivated, and you can happily grow it in a pot or in the garden; it can also be found growing wild on Italian hills and mountains – it is native to the Mediterranean – and is very similar in flavour and appearance to the cultivated one. One curious way with rosemary is putting some sprigs in a jar of sugar as you might vanilla, for a flavoured sugar.

Saffron (zafferano) is used very parsimoniously in Italian cooking, as it is so expensive. The spice comes from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, an Eastern crocus; these have to be picked by hand, and it takes the stigmas of some half a million flowers to make a kilo (couple of pounds) of spice! Most of the world’s saffron is grown in Spain, but there are some plantations in Italy, most notably in Abruzzi and Sardinia. The most famous usage of saffron in Italian cooking is in the golden grains of a risotto milanese (which traditionally accompanies ossobuco), but it lends its colour and wonderful flavour to a few fish dishes as well. I once even invented a saffron ice cream…

Sage (salvia) is quite important in Italian cuisine. Fresh sage leaves are gently sautéed in butter for a simple sauce for ravioli or pan-fried veal liver; it is a major ingredient in veal saltimbocca, and it is also used in many stuffings mixed with other herbs (as it is in Britain). It is tender, so if grown in a pot it will need to be brought indoors in northern Europe.

Salt (sale) is probably the most commonly used flavour enhancer in all cooking. It is not vegetable based, but it has an important role in vegetable cooking (and indeed in all cooking). It was the earliest preserving agent used by man, and it is still used all over the world to preserve fish (such as cod, herrings and anchovies), meat (in the many Italian pork salume), and to preserve capers, a very characteristic Italian flavour. Salt was once so important that it was sold in special shops, and the word ‘salary’ in English comes from the Latin word for salt. Sea salt is produced mainly in Trapani, Sicily, and in parts of Sardinia, from salt pans in which seawater is evaporated by the sun, leaving the salt.

Tarragon (dragoncello, estragone) has become more popular in Italy in recent years. It is used in sauces to go with chicken, fish or eggs, and in salads or as a garnish. Combined with chopped garlic, tarragon turns sauce hollandaise into sauce béarnaise, which is eaten with steak or roasted fish. Tarragon should be used sparingly because it has quite a strong taste.

Thyme (timo) is hardier than marjoram, but not dissimilar in look and flavour – perhaps even a little more intense in flavour than marjoram. The little leaves can be used fresh – the easiest to find is the wild – but they can also be dried. Both are used in marinades, in sauces, soups, stuffings, stocks, in the liquid for cooking pulses, and lend their pungency to an aromi (bouquet garni). It is strong, so should be used sparingly.


Nuts are the fruits or seeds of certain plants, usually trees, and the inside of the hard shell is known as the kernel. Nuts in Italy are as important as fruit, and like fruit are eaten fresh, or dried to preserve them. Nuts are a concentrated food source, containing many nutrients such as protein. They are also very rich in oils, many of which are healthy to use in cooking – but must be bought in small quantities, as all nut oils go rancid very quickly. In Italy, nuts often take the major role in a recipe, while in some other cases they just play a participating role, but all are in one way or another quite important to the Italian economy.

The almond (mandorla) tree, related to the peach and apricot, is an ancient import from Central Asia and China: the trees were brought along the Silk Road into the Mediterranean, and naturalized happily in Spain and Italy. (They are now grown all over the world, particularly in Florida.) There are two basic varieties of almonds, sweet and bitter; seeds of the bitter almond contain traces of prussic acid, so the majority of almonds under cultivation around the world are sweet. In Italy, almonds are grown mainly in the Veneto, Puglia, Campania and in Sicily and Sardinia. The fruit is formed of an outer leathery skin, within which a hard shell forms, which encloses the seed, the almond itself.

In the Italian south, and in parts of the Middle East, almonds are eaten raw, when soft and green, before the internal hard shell develops. In Sicily, they also squeeze them at this stage to produce almond milk (latte de mandorle). When dry and minced they are used with egg whites in the making of marzipan, marzapane (or pasta reale, as they call it in Sicily), to make sweets of all sorts, often formed into fruit shapes. Marzipan is used in Sicily to make cassata, as well as biscuits. Torrone (nougat) made with almonds (torrone mandorlato) is a great speciality (and you can also find torrone made with peanuts and hazelnuts). Ground almonds can replace flour in many cake recipes, and they are used in the making of amaretti biscuits: a proportion of bitter almonds – heat-treated to make them safe – are included to give that unique flavour. Almonds are also used to make an oil, which is used in cooking, medicine and beauty (it is an excellent base massage oil). Since Roman times, almond shells have been used to fire brick kilns (they are still used in biomass converters) and, finally, almonds lend their flavour to the famous liqueur, Amaretto.

As a child, there was a type of chestnut (castagna) I used to adore. These were sold near the sanctuary of Montevergine in Avellino, called castagne del prete or ‘priest chestnuts’. They were cooked, semi-dried and put on strings to be sold or stored. The chestnut has been a great source of nourishment for thousands of years, especially for the population of the mountains of northern Italy and the Apennines. Probably originally from Asia, the sweet chestnut tree produces a fruit that is wrapped in a very prickly casing; a brown and shiny, firm peel encloses the nut, which also has a further skin adhering to it. Chestnuts are the only nuts to contain vitamin C, and they are also low in fat and rich in carbohydrate. The latter quality is one reason for their usefulness in areas of cucina povera (roughly the ‘cooking of poverty’). A versatile fruit, the chestnut was and is eaten boiled or roasted from fresh – famously in the caldallessa or ballotta, a dish of freshly boiled chestnuts served with wine in northern Italian trattorias. They are also dried to preserve them; these can be ground to make chestnut flour, which is used for a kind of polenta porridge (useful before maize was introduced) and even pasta; castagnaccio is a cake made from chestnut flour and, when mixed with water, sugar and vanilla, chestnut flour makes crema di castagne, a filling for sweet ravioli. Regenerated, dried chestnuts are used in cooking quite a lot, in soups, in stuffings, as a vegetable, and chopped and whipped with cream in the famous dessert montebianco. Chestnuts can also be frozen after being peeled. I will never forget the chestnut jam my granny used to make with roasted chestnuts; this tasted just like marroni canditi (or marrons glacés as they are known in France). These are made in Italy from a particular chestnut variety called marroni; these chestnuts grow singly in their spiky skin, not in clusters like ordinary chestnuts.

If you roast your own chestnuts – rather than buy them from a stall – be sure to make an incision in the shiny skin first, so that they do not explode in the oven. You can buy special chestnut roasting pans, which have holes in the bottom; these can be put on the open fire, or on a barbecue.

The hazelnut (nocciola, avellana) comes from a tree native to the northern hemisphere. It is cultivated in both the south and north of Italy, principally in Campania, where the city of Avellino actually takes its name from its most famous crop. My granny used to live there, and had a small plantation of hazelnuts; in season, the crop was large enough to occupy one whole room of her house! I remember at festivals in autumn, hazelnuts were sold toasted, pierced and threaded on to pieces of string, resembling a necklace.

Like almonds, hazelnuts are used in torrone or nougat, but in Italy they are mainly combined with chocolate. The famous gianduja of Turin, a hazelnut and chocolate spread, was invented during Napoleonic times. When the city was under siege by the British, a chocolatier extended the little chocolate he had with some chopped hazelnuts, famously the variety La Tonda Gentile della Langhe. (This variety grows in the same region as the white Alba truffle, and the truffles from below hazelnut trees are reputed to be the best!) One of the most successful hazelnut and chocolate products, however, is Nutella, a modern version of gianduja, which has given Mr Ferrero of Alba great commercial success. A hazelnut oil is delicious used in salads, and a hazelnut liqueur is produced in Piedmont – Frangelico – which is sold in a bottle shaped like a monk in his habit. I love hazelnuts, and have developed some new recipes with them.

The monkey nut or peanut (arachide) is a member of the legume family, therefore botanically is a pulse rather than a nut. The peanut is also known as the groundnut because it buries its seed pods in the ground to ripen. It is a hugely important world crop, originating from South America, and is grown in Italy, primarily in Puglia and Campania. Peanuts find their way into biscuits and torrone (nougat), but their prime usage is as they do in the south of Italy, a very Arabic custom: they shell and eat roasted peanuts during the passeggio, the pre-dinner walk in the local corso (main street). (Lupini or lupin seeds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are also eaten in the same way.) Groundnut oil is a familiar item in many kitchens: it has a high smoke point, so can be used in frying, unlike other nut oils.

Stone pine trees, from which pine kernels or pine nuts (pinoli) come, are very much part of the Italian landscape. Their pine cones, on maturing, hold two nuts/ seeds under each scale of the cone. In America, pine nuts are harvested by Native Americans; the pine kernels which come from Korean pines are much larger than the European or American. Pine nuts have been used as a food for thousands of years wherever pine trees grow; in Italy they are used in tortes and cakes, in stuffing for roasts, to enrich salads and, most famously, as a major ingredient of the famous Ligurian pesto sauce.

Pistachio (pistacchio) nuts are grown in Italy, with the best quality cultivated near to Mount Etna – more precisely Bronte, where Admiral Nelson stayed while in Sicily. The tree is typical of the southern Mediterranean. The most curious use of pistachio is in the mortadella salame from Bologna: it doesn’t give much flavour, but adds visual appeal when sliced. Pistachios are eaten shelled as a snack – on the passeggio, like peanuts – and are also used in cakes, biscuits, torrone, sauces and as flavouring and colouring for a delicious Italian ice cream. Pistachio oil has a very strong flavour, and should be used to add flavour to foods, or in dressings.

Lastly the walnut (noce). The tree comes originally from Asia, and was introduced to Europe in around the fifteenth century. It is another quintessential nut used in Italy, and the best come from the Sorrento area in Campania. The fruits of the tree grow in clusters: a green outer shell encloses the brown, crinkly shell that hardens during the ripening process; this encloses the brain-like kernel. I adore ‘green’ walnuts, which you can peel while still fresh and tender (before the shell hardens), and which I eat with bread. (This is what is pickled in Britain.) I make nocino a digestive liqueur, every year with green walnuts. Every Italian region has a nocino but perhaps Emilia-Romagna is the main place, as nocino is a speciality of Modena. Walnuts that have been allowed to mature and dry are appreciated for their wrinkly kernels. These are sold in the shell, or shelled, and are used for sauces, the most important being the Ligurian tocco de noce to dress the herb-stuffed ravioli known as pansôti al preboggion. Walnuts can be used in cakes, torte fillings or simply eaten as they are. I also make mostarda every year, which is a heavenly tasting jam, cooked for 12 hours, combining fresh juice, apples, peaches, pears, plums, berries and walnuts. Walnut oil is delicious used in dressings.

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