Aroma- Herbaceous, Piney, Sweet
Flavour- Warm, earthy, slight bitterness
Origin and name
A commonly used herb across the world, Oregano is a staple ingredient in many cuisines and as such is sometimes known as “The Prince of herbs”. It is probably most associated with Italian cooking, where it’s aromatic leaves are used to flavour a number of tomato based sauces.The word Oregano is used to refer to a number of different herbs most belonging to the mint family. Depending on location, oregano could refer to Mexican oregano, Cuban oregano, marjoram or orégano chiquito. What unites these is the herbaceous woody “oregano” flavour which is a product of the high concentrations of the oil Carvacrol, however true oregano belongs to the species Origanum vulgare, a small woody shrub with aromatic leaves found naturally occurring in the Mediterreanean.
Although the first people to cultivate oregano are hard to pin down due to its overlap with its close cousin Marjoram, the word itself derives from the Greek for “Joy of the mountain”. It is believed that the ancient Greeks grazed their cattle in the mountains where oregano naturally grew, in order to impart some of the herbaceous flavour to the beef. This history can be seen in Greek cooking today where oregano is a foundational flavour. Like many other herbs and spices, oregano held a ceremonial protective role in many ancient communities, being used to ward off evil spirits and even witches.
Geography and Cultivation
Oregano's mediterranean origins have persisted through to today with many countries in the region such as Italy, Turkey, Hungary and Greece producing large amounts. During the period of colonial expansion oregano made its way to the Americas where it was part of the Colubian exchange of crops and livestock which introduced many staple foods to European diets such as tomatoes and potatoes. Oregano didn’t gain mass popularity in America until after the second world war after returning soldiers developed a taste for it when travelling through Europe. Today America is one of the largest consumers of Oregano worldwide.
The oregano plant grows to be between 20-80cm in height with flowers growing from spikes near the top of the stem. It’s natural habitat is the hot dry mountains surrounding the mediterranean where it can be grown as a perennial, it requires well drained soil and is drought resistant. In colder climates the plant struggles to survive and so it is recommended to overwinter Oregano indoors, or to grow it as an annual crop.
Oregano is ubiquitous in mediterranean cuisine, whether it be in the pizza bases and tomato sauces of Italy or the seasoning for the various meats used in Turkish Kebabs. The plant can be used fresh or can be dried, which concentrates the flavours promoting greater development of aromatic flavours. It is a frequent component of many Italian herb mixes where it is used to flavour meat, vegetable and fish dishes. In Portugal and Greece the dried herbs are often used to season salads containing tomato and cucumber. In central America it is widely used in dishes such as chilli or mole. In Argentina the herb has been used to season meats and is a common ingredient in the sauce Chimichurri.