I recently joined a scent group that started up (we’re working on a name) and our last meeting was a potluck with a basil theme, perhaps in anticipation of summer. Basil is so ubiquitous in food today, but in the U.S. it was fairly exotic until the 80s. I remember reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in high school, in which a character grew basil in her garden, and our teacher had to explain to us that this was unusual for the time.
Basil, a member of the mint family, was certainly also ubiquitous in Asian and Mediterranean cultures for thousands of years. It was grown in Egypt and possibly used for embalming, and in India it was considered sacred. In Ancient Greece and Rome it symbolized hatred and poverty—ironic given that basil is an essential element of regional cuisines in both countries today.
Today you probably most commonly come into contact with sweet basil, Genovese basil, and Thai basil, and you may even be attuned to their subtle differences. There are about perhaps up to 150 different cultivars of basil all together, including lemon basil, cinnamon basil, and licorice basil.
For my dish I decided to do something different than the usual tomato-basil pairing, so I made this lemon pudding with a basil custard. It was really delicious and a big hit, although fairly labor-intensive, especially with a hand mixer–it took forever to get both the pudding and the custard to thicken. I was trying to think of some other combinations with basil—maybe a basil-watermelon salad, a basil-blood orange salad, basil-yogurt smoothies? Part of the custard recipe involves simmering basil leaves in milk, which could be a treat on its own. Basil iced tea, basil margaritas–some people at dinner were putting basil leaves in white wine.
In terms of perfumes, basil is a strong note in L’Eau du Sud by Annick Goutal, which is one of my go-to scents when it’s really hot out, as it reminds me of the smell of heat rising from the ground. I’d like to try Baime, described as basil combined with thyme and jasmine. Jo Malone, known for simple but very high-quality colognes, offers a lot of scents with basil, including Basil & Neroli and Lime Basil & Mandarin. If you just want a straight shot of basil, Demeter is the way to go. Or just rub some leaves on yourself!