You may know what Candelaria is; you may not. Even though I had a mostly Christian upbringing, I only knew the word Candelaria from an art history class. And it was a painting by Hans Holbein (The Elder, I think).
In San Miguel de Allende, the presentation of Christ at the temple and the purification of Mary is a very important event. To celebrate it, every year, a new Feria de las Flores (Festival of Flowers) begins on the anniversary of Candelaria, February 2, in San Miguel’s prettiest park, Parque Juarez. Well it supposedly always starts on February 2 but it actually always seems to start earlier. This year it began on January 27.
I always look forward to Candelaria in San Miguel. Until it arrives. You see there are two herbs that are almost impossible to find in San Miguel de Allende. Tarragon and Italian basil. And every year, I get my hopes up, thinking this will be the year that among the thousand of herbs and spices (in case you didn’t know the difference…I didn’t until recently…spices are made from the seeds, bark, flowers, and roots of plants; herbs are made only from the leaves) for sale in Parque Juarez, I will find my needles in the haystack. Of course I know why I don’t. When did you last see basil or tarragon in a Mexican dish?
I traipse through every inch of the displays in the park trying to distinguish one leaf from another leaf, breaking a little one off when no one is looking, rubbing it between middle finger and thumb, then smelling and tasting it. Even then, I’m not exactly sure what it is. So finally I give up and go home disappointed.
In all the years of Candelaria, inspecting thousands of plants, I have never once found tarragon or Italian basil. Same time next year? Oh please let it be next year.
Now I said I go home disappointed but I never go home empty-handed. For there are always some things in my spice garden that need replenishing.
Imagine a steaming baked potato split in half, sour cream and butter are oozing into the crevices, salt and pepper are sprinkled liberally over the top. But something is missing. Well, to me it is. It’s cebollino. Chives in English. It’s not an impossible but it’s a very hard to find fresh herb in San Miguel de Allende. So my solution is why bother shopping, plant it.
Even though Italian or Genovese basil is impossible to find at the Candelaria fair, Thai or sweet basil is relatively easy. So another thing I looked for this year at the flower fair was signs with the word albahaca (or albahacar). Grasshoppers like Thai basil (and mint) as much as I do and last August they thought my garden was a restaurant in Bangkok. There are only two places I know of where you can regularly purchase fresh Thai basil in San Miguel but it took me years to search out those sources and neither one of them is a short walking distance from our home. So Thai basil always has a little place in our garden. Ready to be dropped into the coconut milk for that next yellow curry.
Menta is, of course mint. I stopped putting mint sauce on lamb years ago (even though my mother still gave me a jar of her homemade every summer) but there’s one place I still must have my mint and that’s with fresh (or canned or frozen) peas. Throw a few leaves in the pot just before you take them off the heat the next time you’re having a rib roast.
As mentioned, in August the grasshoppers devoured my menta and my hierba buena (or yerba buena). Perhaps they were confused like I have been in the past as to which is which. It’s easy to smell and tell the difference when you have samples of both but if you only have one, it can be tough.
Though the Spanish words that translate as good herb are used to describe different spices in different parts of the world, in Central Mexico, hierba buena almost always refers to spearmint (while menta is common mint). You don’t have to be a Cubs fan to know one of spearmint’s primary culinary uses. It also makes a nice edible decoration with chocolate dishes. John Gerard, in the 1597 book Herbal, says of spearmint “the smell rejoice the heart of man”. When the bartender at La Azotea pounds it into a mojito, the smell rejoices the heart of this man.
The next herb on my shopping list was tomillo or thyme. Tomillo likes dry and sunny conditions so you would think it would like life in San Miguel. It doesn’t. Not in our garden anyway. So, about every other year, it’s time to replace the thyme.
There are a couple of herbs that I didn’t pick up at the Feria De Las Flores even though I consider them essential in a small spice garden. It’s just that I already have enough of them.
All I could think of when I learned what romero meant was how unsuccessful a certain tall, dark and handsome Hollywood actor might have been if his name was Cesar Rosemary. I would grow romero if only for Don Day’s Wife’s spaghetti with a mushroom and rosemary cream sauce.
There is one form of rosemary that I always find at the flower fair that drives me nuts. It’s appropriately called romero de nuez or nutty rosemary. It looks like rosemary only it’s a paler, chalky blue. Rough up the leaves and you’ll get the smell of pecans but put them in your mouth and they’re tasteless. I’ve asked every one who sells it what to do with it. Nobody seems to know. Even Wikipedia.
You would think salvia or sage in English would be easy to find at the Candelaria fair but it’s not. If you do see something labelled salvia, you want to make sure that what you’re purchasing is common culinary sage, the one with the larger, bluish leaves, rather than the smaller leafed sage that is used as a decorative flowering plant. I love sage, especially in a butter sauce over pasta, and have a huge pot on the patio. But luckily I have lots for I didn’t see one pot of culinary sage at this year’s sale.
WHAT ELSE DID I FIND AT THE FERIA DE LAS FLORES?
That’s it for what’s in my herb and spice garden. But here are a few other herbs and spices I saw that you might want in your garden. Plus what I know about them.
Manzanilla. I only discovered what this was recently. Manzanilla is Spanish for chamomile. Though chamomile tea isn’t the worst tasting drink in the world, it is still pretty much a medicinal beverage.
Toronjil. This is lemon balm. It’s commonly used in tea, occasionally used in ice cream, but it’s best use is probably when it’s made into a pesto and served with fish.
Perejil. There are two types of parsley in most of the world, flat leaf and curly leaf. But not in Mexico. Here I’ve only ever found Italian flat leaf, including at the Candelaria fair. And why don’t I grow it? Because perejil and cilantro are so cheap and so plentiful, there’s no need.
Epazote. This is one I consider the most Mexican of all herbs and I’ve never seen it in any other country and never heard an English translation. The word epazote is derived from the local Nahuatl language and means skunk sweat. It smells like turpentine to me but the taste is more like tarragon or oregano. It seems to be an essential in black bean recipes and finds its way into many other Mexican dishes.
Cedron. The main application for this seems to be for snake-bites. The closest it comes to culinary use is when the directions tell you that, after you rub it on the bite, drink a little with brandy.
Estevia. Pretty easy to guess that this is the sweetener Stevia. Though I’m not crazy about it in my coffee, I really like the taste when I chew on a leaf. I don’t know of any recipes that use the fresh leaves but I think there should be some.
Muicle. This herb is native to Mexico and very popular for a long list of what ails you. I know of no culinary uses, however.
Oregano. There are many different oreganos…Italian, Greek, Syrian, Mexican. You would think that most of what you’d see at the Candelaria fair would be Mexican. Surprisingly it’s not. All I found was Italian and we prefer the concentrated taste of dried to fresh Italian.
Mejorana (or mayorana or marjorama). Another one that’s easy to translate is marjoram. Not so easy is knowing whether marjoram and oregano are two different things or exactly the same. Marjoram finds its way into a lot of dishes with the most well-known in Mexico probably being cochinita pibil.
Arnica. Another herb that appears to have no culinary use. Even the medicinal uses for relieving arthritis and reducing bruising may be questionable.
Insulina or insolina. Insulin plant in English is strictly a medicinal herb and known as the “miracle cure” for diabetes.
Vaporú or vaporub or vaporrub. This one is known in English as the Vick’s plant or still by its Latin name, Plectranthus tomentosa. It obviously gets its name because the leaves smell like Vick’s Vap-O-Rub. Again I don’t know of any culinary uses but Latinos seem to have a long list of medicinal uses (including rubbing it on their feet).
Poleo. This one is pennyroyal in English. Though once commonly used by the Greeks and Romans in many dishes, it has now fallen out of favor as a culinary herb and all applications seem to be medicinal.
Apio. This is celery, something I would never grow but would always buy.
Manrubio. It’s called horehound in English, a herb that’s most commonly used to treat coughs and colds. It’s also used in some candy recipes but as we don’t make candy in our home, manrubio doesn’t make it into our garden.
Ajenjo. This is wormwood in English. It’s not particularly useful unless you’re going to make your own absinthe (call me if you do) but looks nice in a perennial border.
Ruda or ruta. This is rue in English but, then again, who knows what rue is in English. I know it’s used in Greek cuisine and I think it’s used in Ethiopian cuisine but I don’t know where else. I do know it looks good in a garden with its bluish leaves and yellow flowers but, if you can’t eat it, it won’t look good in mine.
Hoja santa. I’d never heard of hoja santa until I moved to Mexico and I’m not sure that it’s used outside of this country. The only English term I’ve heard for it is root beer plant because it tastes a little (but not a lot) like sassafras. Mexicans use it in pozole, tamales and mole verde, three things we only buy and never make so, even though I like the taste, no hojo santa in my garden.
And one more thing before I sign off. If you ever see French tarragon or Italian basil plants, please tell me where.