Ooh, that smell

No, not cannabis, basilhead.

No, not cannabis, basilhead.

Some pieces of produce—a shiny apple or a perfectly yellow banana—can get by on looks alone. But where would basil be without its smell?

A member of the mint family, or Lamiaceae, sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) actually walks a fine line between the bitter and the sweet. Which is it? Eaten straight, it’s almost unpalatably bitter. Its smell, though, could be the gentlest, most alluring aroma in the garden—and savory main plates, desserts, popsicles and beer have all been bettered by this marvelous herb.

Basil, it is believed, originated in India and the Middle East before migrating outward. In Southeast Asia, the fragrant herb found its way into coconut milk curries. In Italy, chefs saw basil’s potential as a companion to cheese, and thus were born the Caprese salad and, of course, pesto.

Today, some 40 varieties of O. basilicum grow, but a mere handful of cultivars dominate the American market.

At Good Humus Produce in Capay, Jeff and Annie Main grow three staples—Italian green, purple and cinnamon—and sell them at $2 per bunch at the Wednesday and Saturday farmers’ markets in Davis and at the Davis and Sacramento food co-ops. Annie suggests using the purple and cinnamon varieties as garnish on peaches. She also says she has made a knockout plum jelly spiced with her cinnamon basil.