Columbia Road Market 73
Clockwise from top – Basil, Thai Basil, Purple Basil and Basil Mint
These are the salad days of Summer, when each evening I sit in my tiny garden in Spitalfields beneath the leafy shelter of the big tree and eat sausages with salad, or chicken with salad, or a lamb chop with salad or a trout with salad, and so it goes on.
Which means that when I returned to visit Mick Grover, the herbseller, at Columbia Rd and stepped under his canopy in the crowded market to speak with him in the shade, and he offered me these different varieties of Basil plants, I did not think twice. A couple of times each week at this season, I walk down to Whitechapel Market at around six, when they are packing up and, for the outlay of a few pounds, I come back with box of ripe mangos. So, you will appreciate, with green salad and fruit salad every day, I have plenty of use for leaves of Basil.
There is a pungent allure to the fragrance of Basil, evoking the Mediterranean and conjuring thoughts of the infamous pot of Basil in the Decameron, when Lisabetta of Messina put the decapitated head of her lover Lorenzo in a pot of Basil and watered it with tears. The tale reflects an age-old ambivalence – the Romans believed Basil would only grow if it was cursed and in medieval art the figure of poverty is sometimes portrayed carrying a pot of Basil.
It is an equivocation perpetuated in “The English Physician or Herball” of 1653 by Nicholas Culpeper, who once grew herbs in Spitalfields, on a site where the Bishop’s Square development is today, and offered remedies to the poor folk there without charge. Culpeper wrote of Basil, “And away to Dr. Reason went I, who told me it was an herb of Mars, and under the Scorpion, and therefore called Basilicon, and it is no marvel if it carry a kind of virulent quality with it.” Though Culpeper also recorded that if Basil was applied to the site of a wasp sting or bite of a “venomous beast,” it “speedily draws the poison to it.”
A quarter of a mile away from where Culpeper had his garden, walking through the passage from Allen Gardens to Brick Lane can be a grim experience – the worst alley in Spitalfields – yet here one of the chefs from the Thai restaurant has taken the initiative to create a modest herb garden of Basil upon an indeterminate scrap of earth outside the kitchen door. There is pathos in this tiny patch of cultivation, surrounded by an ineffectual border of twigs in the midst of urban chaos. One set of footsteps would destroy it, and yet, miraculously, sweet Basil thrives in this most unpromising of circumstances.
Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), Herbalist of Spitalfields
The chef’s herb garden behind the Thai restaurant in Brick Lane.
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and their Varieties of Mint