If you happen to eat a real Italian pizza, you’ll probably notice some curious, dark-green, dried little leaves on top. Nothing strange: they’re just oregano leaves. Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is an aromatic herb largely used in Mediterranean cuisine, from Africa to Europe, from Spain to Turkey, and is at the base of many Italian recipes. It goes perfectly well with the fresh, watery, sweetish taste of tomatoes, this is why it is commonly used on pizzas, but also to season tomato-based pasta sauces, pickled olives and grilled vegetables such as eggplants (the wonderful pair), zucchini and peppers.
Just like limoncello, nothing sounds more summery and more Mediterranean than a tomato salad seasoned with dried oregano and extra vergine olive oil. But, if making olive oil at home sounds a bit out of reach (unless you have your own olive grove – in this case, lucky you!), grow and dry your oregano is as easy as season your salad. Only a little more time-taking.
Dried oregano, with its strong spicy smell and brittle consistency, is to me like a family bond: an aromatic recollection of grandma’s native land, Calabria, where my great-aunts still make it every summer. Every year, usually around Christmas, my great-aunts sent us a package full of home-made delicatessen like melanzane e zucchine sott’olio (eggplants and zucchini in oil), soprassata (a kind of spicy sausage) and the ever-present jar of dried oregano which should last – at least according to great-aunts’ intentions – all over the year.
It’s unnecessary to say that home-made dried oregano has nothing to do with ready-to-use oregano you find at the supermarket. Therefore, being Calabrian supplies never enough and finally having my own garden, I tried and planted oregano in a terracotta pot (you actually don’t need to sow a field to have a one-year supply – a medium pot would perfectly do).
Oregano is an undemanding plant but gives great satisfactions. It only needs a sunny exposure, dry, rather neutral soil and moderate watering. Every summer it produces tiny purple flowers in erect spikes, which can be harvested together with the leaves for they are edible as well. Fresh leaves can be picked and used any time of the year, but if you want to dry and preserve them, summer is the right time, just when the plant is in bloom. Cut the stems 10-15 cm below flowers, gather them in small bunches (4-5 stems: thus making, you’ll prevent mould from forming), discarding any damaged leaf you find, and tie them at the base of the stems. Hang the bunches upside-down in a shady and airy place, and let them dry for a week or two (time depends on your climate). Oregano fears damp conditions, so pay careful attention to the environment. When the leaves are dry and brittle, oregano is ready to be preserved in glass jars. You can choose either to keep the bunches as they are and pick the leaves only when needed, or to collect the leaves and flowers all at once (thus removing the stems) so they’re ready to be used in cooking. If you think you have no right places to hang oregano, you can dry it in the oven. In this case, place the bunches over a sheet of baking paper on an oven shelf and let them dry in a warm oven (35°C – 95°F) for about 15 minutes or until leaves are desiccated. Remember to leave the oven door slightly ajar to allow air to circulate: to do so, use a wooden spoon to prevent the door from closing.
Now oregano is ready to season all your dishes!