This summer I wanted to grow some herbs for the kitchen on our terrace. I bought thyme, basil, sage, and rosemary but I could not find a single oregano plant anywhere. Why was this staple herb missing from all the local garden shops around Mount Etna? Because the most flavorful, aromatic oregano grows wild throughout the Sicilian countryside. Virtually no one grows a cultivated version of this common kitchen herb when they can collect a wild variety that is coveted throughout the world, not only for it’s robust taste and perfume but also for it’s healing properties.
Oregano has been all over the news lately as a powerful medicinal plant. Science is now proving what older generations of Sicilians have always known – wild plants don’t just taste and smell better, they’re better for your health. Recent studies have shown that wild oregano has higher concentrations of chemical compounds such carvacol and thymol which have strong antibiotic, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties.
But whether you want wild Sicilian oregano to make a marinara sauce or to boost your immune system, first you need to know where to find it. Lucky for us, we have two knowledgeable friends, Santo and Carmelo, who have been collecting wild oregano for decades and were willing to show us the ropes.
Santo took us to the countryside in Linguaglossa, not far from the center of town. “Now is the time to harvest because the oregano is flowering”, he said. The delicate, white flowers are the most aromatic and delicious part of the plant. We walked along a path through an old hazelnut grove and Santo pointed out a bunch of wild oregano growing around a group of stones. “Oregano doesn’t need rich soil or much water”, Santo explained. We collected a few big bunches and then moved to another location along a path with a beautiful view of Mount Etna, down to a natural spring. Santo’s dog (and his best hiking companion) Bow-Bow took a long drink and we filled our bottles with fresh, cold water.
Later that week our friend Carmelo took us back to Malvagna, where we had collected wild asparagus together in March. We walked along the trail for a few minutes and Carmelo led us down a hillside covered with tall purple thistles and prickly bushes. We found oregano growing all around the sharp leaves of wild artichoke plants. It was about 5pm but the sun was still strong and the dense, thorny brush grabbed at our clothes as we followed Carmelo up the rocky slopes to the next spot. My daughter Mekdes and I joked that we should have brought machetes for this excursion.
As we collected the long perfumed stalks of oregano we tied them together in bunches. “Don’t put them in your bags” Carmelo said, “or you’ll damage the flowers and leaves. Just tie them up and carry them as we go.” A few hours later with a hefty bounty of herbs in hand, Carmelo led us up the steep, rocky hill back to the trail. When we finally reached the top and began making our way back to the car, Camelo pointed out a massive crop of oregano growing easily within reach, right at the edge of the path. He laughed like a mischievous young boy saying, “You know, there’s lots of oregano you can find without climbing up and down the hills, but that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? Besides, if everyone picks all the oregano in the easy places, now you’ll know where else to find it.”
We heard the sound of bells and saw a herd of cows sauntering along the trail ahead. As we got closer they stared us down and clearly were not planning to move or let us by. Given their giant horns, massive bodies, and the little calves they were protecting, we decided to climb off the trail around go around them. When we got to the car, it was surrounded by another group of cows so Carmelo got in and honked the horn to urge them off. As we drove back into the tranquil little village of Malvagna the car was filled with the perfume of our oregano harvest. We stopped for a snack of fresh roasted nuts and Carmelo treated us to an aperativo, “so we would forgive him for taking us on such a difficult hike”. Despite the prickly bushes and slippery rocks, we all agreed this was a much better adventure.
Once we got home we dried the oregano as Carmelo explained, separating it into smaller bunches, tying them on our clothes rack and letting them dry in the shade. The bunches should be a little loose, especially at the top so the flowers won’t be crushed and air can flow through.
Eating in Sicily has definitely taught me to enjoy foods in their most pure and simple form, and wild oregano is no exception. There are so many recipes that use this wonderful, aromatic herb, but here’s one of our favorite ways to enjoy oregano that you won’t have to write down:
Pour some good, strong, extra virgin olive oil in a dish
Sprinkle a little handful of oregano into the oil
Break off a chunk of fresh, warm bread and dip it into the oil and oregano
Inhale the spicy, sweet aroma
Take a bite