Sicilian oregano

My rigani (Greek oregano) has been flowering for a few weeks now. It was an afterthought given by my father – a small seedling stuffed into a pot containing a dwarf pomegranate plant. Both have pulled through a couple of very cold winters in my part of Italy, much to my amazement.

I’ve been torn between letting it flower merrily and harvesting it. The middle way was to pick a modest bunch, which is now hanging upside down in my kitchen. My enthusiasm for this herb in its dried form has been renewed having encountered it on my recent trip to Sicily. For in the Agrigento region, it pops up on dishes everywhere. The Greeks – and Sicilians – like to use dried flowers, not the leaves, for use in cooking.

Mainland Italians use dried oregano of course, but it seems Sicilian enthusiasm is much greater. It occurred to me the ancient Greeks must have been cooking with oregano all those centuries ago during their occupation of Sicily, and this culinary habit hung around long after they had departed.

Sicilians are keen to promote their organic wild oregano – ‘unico al mondo!’ proclaims my packet of Oregano heracleoticum. The botanically minded of you will at this point exclaim, ‘ahah you mean Origanum vulgaris hirtum (which O.heracleoticum is now called) the true Greek oregano!’ I think I’ll leave it to the Sicilians and the Greeks to debate the uniqueness of their beloved herb. The main thing about it, however, is its intense flavour and perfume.

L’aroma rimane integro se sbriciolato al momento della utilizzazione – the aroma stays the same even after you’ve crumbled (the flowers).

Sicilian cooks use it on roasts, in salads, with bread, fish, and marinades, there’s even a pesto from Pantelleria. One of the most appealing examples I came across was on strips of pizza. I didn’t watch it being made, but I reckon the pizza base had been strewn with thin slices of onion, shavings of young pecorino, strips of anchovy fillets and then folded in half to be baked in the pizza oven. Once crisp it was cut into strips and dried oregano, olive oil and lemon juice sprinkled over.

Mary Taylor Simeti in her book ‘Sicilian Food’ describes a very similar pizza called Rianata in Sicilian, which translates as “oreganata” or oregano pizza. In her recipe the pizza isn’t folded in half, and the pizza topping includes chopped tomatoes and mozzarella – more similar to pizza we expect to see on any menu. I thought the tomato-less version was not only unusual but also rustically elegant, if such a thing is possible.