June 1, 2000
In ancient Greece, oregano was called "joy of the mountain," taking its name from oros, meaning mountain, and ganos, meaning joy. This wild herb favors hilly terrain, and its root structure helps bind soil and keep it from washing away on steep slopes.
Claim to fame
It's difficult to trace oregano's early history with any certainty because of this herb's relationship to its cultivated cousin marjoram. Both are of the same genus, and their popular and botanical terms have long been confused. It seems clear, however, that oregano was not as widely used in cooking as was marjoram, except along the shores of the Mediterranean. There, in Italy, Greece and other countries, cooks recognized its affinity for tomato-based sauces, lamb, seafood and almost any garlic-flavored dish, and it became a tradition to pick wild oregano and use it in many dishes.
In the "new world," cooks in Mexico used oregano to flavor chile-based dishes, but in North America, cookbooks rarely mentioned oregano until after World War II. Then, returning GIs brought back a love for pizza, and oregano was "discovered" in this country. Not only did pizza call for oregano, it placed it right on top where people noticed its enticing flavor and aroma.
Suddenly there was an explosion of interest in oregano. From an herb that the Department of Commerce didn't list separately in import reports due to low volume, oregano use grew to one and a half million pounds a year by the 1960s, and has since grown to over fourteen million pounds. More recently, oregano has enjoyed a boost from the current boom in Mexican-style foods.
All about oregano
Oregano that comes from the Mediterranean is known as Origanum vulgare, meaning it is a wild species of the genus Origanum. Marjoram, Origanum majorana, is a member of the same genus. Some refer to oregano as a "wild marjoram," but marjoram is in fact a cultivated species of Origanum.
Long-established trade practices also recognize the leaves of certain Mexican plants as oregano, since their flavor and aroma bear a resemblance to Mediterranean oregano. Mexican oregano, however, is from the genus Lippia, quite distinct from Origanum. Species used in Mexico today are Lippia graveolens and Lippia berlandieri.
For many years, Greece was the leading source of Mediterranean oregano. Currently, however, Turkey is by far the leading supplier of oregano to the United States, followed by Greece and Israel. Though Italy harvests a great deal of oregano, it uses so much domestically that comparatively little is exported.
As compared to the Mexican, the Mediterranean product is a smaller leaf of somewhat lighter green color and milder, sweeter flavor. Compared to sweet marjoram, however, it is stronger and has a slightly bitter, minty taste. Mediterranean oregano typically has a minimum 2% essential oil.
Compared to the Mediterranean herb, Mexican oregano is a much stronger, robustly flavored oregano; some describe its flavor quality as "wild." The leaves in their original form are larger and a somewhat darker shade of green, and their stronger flavor comes from a higher essential oil content, around 3% to 4%.
Harvesting and processing of oregano is carried out in a similar fashion in both the Mediterranean regions and Mexico. Picking is apt to be done by familes who sell their crop to collectors that travel from village to village, and who then sell to either shippers or agents. The shippers clean the oregano, and remove stems, buds or any foreign matter. During this process the dried leaves are broken and sifted to various sizes. There are no grade designations as such for oregano, but it's often sold by mesh size, which indicates average particle size.
Buying and handling oregano
Considering the intended end use is key to buying oregano. When deciding between the Mediterranean and Mexican types, the question is not so much which is better, but rather which flavoring effect is desired. If making an Italian or Greek specialty product, the choice should be the Mediterranean product for an authentic flavor character. Many people in the United States, particularly in the east, are apt to think of the Mediterranean variety as the typical oregano. On the other hand, products flavored with chili powder call for Mexican oregano. When making a barbecue sauce, many westerners would probably want the Mexican version, because it's what they know as oregano.
Another key consideration when buying oregano is appearance. As mentioned, shippers sift leaves according to size when cleaning them. From Europe, it's typical to be given a choice of 30, 50 or 60 mesh oregano; the 30 mesh yields the largest leaf particle size. In general, the larger leaf particles give the choicest, most refined appearance. In Mexico, shippers often refer to their most refined product as "Greek cut."
Industrial food customers in the United States are given a basic choice of ground or whole-leaf oregano, which may be termed "cracked" or "broken flaked," or with a similar designation indicating that the leaves are not in their original whole form. Beyond that, various mesh sizes may also be available, but rather than asking for a specific size, buyers are better served by discussing end use with suppliers, then asking for the best product available to suit the need.
Oregano should be stored under cool, dry conditions. Excessive heat robs it of flavor, and dampness tends to cause caking. As with any highly aromatic herb, oregano should be protected against flavor loss by making sure containers are tightly closed after every use. Under good storage conditions, oregano will retain its flavor qualities and strength long enough to meet all normal food-manufacturing requirements.
Spice Rack is based on the American Spice Trade Association's What You Should Know informational series on spices. For more information, call 201-568-2163, or visit www.astaspice.org.
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