Country & Garden: Herbs No 2 Basil

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KRISHNA, SO the story goes, fell in love with a nymph, Tulasi, and kept her by turning her into a basil plant. For ever after that, only delicate basil sprigs were used to clean Hindu temples. In Greece, although the plant was respected enough to be called the king's plant (basileus means king), basil was linked to misfortune and wasn't expected to flourish unless it had been properly abused at the time of sowing. Boccaccio, noticing the crinkle-haired look of a small-leaved basil plant (ocymum minimum), cooked up the gruesome tale - famously appropriated by Keats - of Isabella and the basil bush, which gives away the secret of where her dead lover's head is buried.

Basil, in one of the old herbals, is suggested as an original way of dieting. Put a sprig under the plate and whoever sits there won't be able to touch a mouthful. I'm not sure I believe this; it doesn't fit with the fact that the favourite sausages of medieval Londoners were generously spiced with basil.

Moldavian girls were hopeful, however, in believing that any young man to whom they gave a sprig would fall in love with them. Tudor housewives handed out whole pots of basil to visitors without, so far as I know, inspiring anything more than gratitude.

Living in Corfu, I never did anything to help basil grow - planted in a pot on the terrace, it rampaged. No chance of that here, but I do have a tip: keep pinching out new leaves when they form on the stem between two larger ones. The result, with not much water and all the light you can offer, should be as tall as a shortish Indian nymph...

My favourite basil recipe is made with pasta. Fry at least two cloves of garlic, a tin or two of tomatoes and a handful of chopped fresh basil. Drain the pasta, add balsamic vinegar to taste, stir in a second handful of basil, add the tomato mixture and sprinkle with grated pecorino: it's gorgeous.