Many of the “big houses” of yesteryear featured a large walled garden.
In this sheltered space the gardeners grew virtually all the flowers needed to decorate the house, almost all the vegetables consumed by the family and the servants and much, if not all, of the fruit similarly consumed. Even citrus fruits were to be found within the orangery; and exotic flowers were often grown in the heated greenhouses which were usually sited backing on to the garden’s north wall to benefit from the maximum possible amount of sunlight. And in one corner, close to the kitchen … or actually just outside the kitchen door … was the herb garden where the gardeners tended the range of herbs which the cooks added to their dishes to add flavour and delicacy to their cooking.
I have a herb garden immediately outside my kitchen door. Well, it’s scarcely a herb garden, but rather more a small collection of herbs growing in pots: but its purpose and use is exactly the same as that served by the proper herb gardens which were formerly to be found in the gardens of the ‘big houses’ around Polmont. The most recent addition is a pot containing oregano, which is often called ‘wild marjoram’ and which, while often to be found growing wild further south in the British Isles, is seldom found in the wild as far north as central Scotland. Since oregano came originally from southern Europe, especially from Mediterranean countries, and continues to be much used in Italy to flavour pizzas and spaghetti dishes, I think there’s a good chance that the Romans introduced the plant to England something of the order of 2 000 years ago, where it was grown in the villas of the wealthy immigrant administrators … the ‘big houses’ of their day … whence it escaped to the wild. Since Scotland north of the central belt was never properly under Roman control, very few Roman villas were built here; and so the herb wasn’t brought here, where it finds the summer rather too damp and the winter too cold and too wet for its liking in any event.
However, it thrives in pots in sheltered spots and is a welcome addition to my small herb collection. Its botanical name is Origanum vulgare … the first part of the name coming from two Greek words, oros and ganos, meaning ‘mountain’ and ‘splendid’, while vulgare is the Latin word for ‘common’; so it’s the common, splendid mountain plant, a name justified by its attractive leaves, flowers and scent, its original mountain habitat and its proliferation in Greece and Italy. But, while oregano is sometimes grown as a decorative annual, it is much more common as a culinary herb in its native lands; and while I am describing it as a ‘herb’, I might equally well have called it a ‘spice.’ Copying the Italians, we add it to pasta dishes and to pizzas where it adds a piquancy which we find very much to our taste.
Our ancestors found many uses for oregano; and I suspect they might have regarded adding it to the cooking pot as a dreadful waste of an excellent medicinal herb, for they used it as a herbal tea in the treatment of diarrhoea, headaches, gastric upsets, coughs, asthma and when someone had the feeling of being generally run down and below par. It was also used externally as a gargle, as an addition to the bath … if that event occurred! … and as an inhalant. Nor was this the end of oregano’s utility, for it was used as a food preservative in the days when refrigeration and canning were undreamt of. I do wonder if its addition to the bath-water and its use as a preservative was encouraged by the tendency of its strong scent to mask the smell of seldom-bathed humanity and of rather-past-their-best foodstuffs. But whether my surmise is correct or well wide of the mark, it is a fact that oregano is a very useful culinary herb … or spice … and is well worth a place in any herb garden to this day.