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Greek Herb of the Month

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Greek Oregano – Ρίγανη  (pronounced REE-gah-nee)

Origins- Origanum vulgare
The name comes from two ancient Greek words.  Oros and Ganos.  Oros means the mountain and Ganos means the brilliance of joy.  Oreganos is then referred to as the brilliant joy of the mountain. Anyone who walks when it is in bloom on the Greek mountain slopes can attest to the fantastic smell and softness of this plant that envelope the mountains.  The plant plays an important role in erosion control on the mountain sides of Greece.  Its roots reduce soil erosion.    This plant finds life at the highest, driest and most difficult mountainous conditions in Greece.  The best Greek Oregano is wild and comes from two places; Taygetus, the highest mountain region in Sparta and in the Olympus Mountains, where the Ancient Greek Gods called home. While Oregano loves sun it can thrive in 25 degree below Celsius.  This is a testament to the strength of this plant.  The Wild Greek Oregano there is seeded from plants that have grown there for thousands of years.    Historically, as the name implies, Greek oregano originates on the mountain slopes of Greece.  The Roman Empire adopted Greek Philosophy and knowledge.   Included in that would be medicine and the use of the herb oregano from a medicinal and culinary standpoint.    That is how Oregano was brought to Rome and then spread throughout Europe.  Europe followed Hippocrates philosophy, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”  Eventually through trade Oregano made its way to China where it was used medicinally.  The Chinese had vast herbal knowledge and welcomed this new plant into their pharmacopeia.

FLAVOR–   Oregano is pungent, warm and peppery.  Its leaves have a sharper flavor than sweet marjoram and taste a little like thyme.  It is savory, earthy and aromatic.  . It is more flavorful when dried than fresh.

Cooking & Food- It is used in almost every Greek dish.  Oregano is marinated on every meat, poultry and fish along with lemon and olive oil.  Oregano, Olive Oil and Lemon are the holy trinity of Greek cooking.   These 3 ingredients are key to the fresh, simple, tastiness of Greek cuisine.  While Greeks have been using oregano for perhaps thousands of years, other countries also cultivate their own oregano such as Italy, Spain and Mexico. Each plant slightly varies in its strength and flavor. Greek Oregano is more subtle.  Americans really didn’t use or know much about Oregano until World War 2 when American soldiers brought it home.   Oregano, like other herbs, loses its distinctive flavor during cooking as the volatile oils evaporate, so it is often added in the last few minutes of cooking or tossed atop a dish before serving.    When it is used in marinades it has hours or sometimes days to pull the flavor into the meat.   Oregano can be added to meats, poultry, fish, marinades, sauces, soups and stews as well as pizza, pasta, and any salad or side dish. Crush the leaves with your hands before adding to any dish to bring out the flavor and aroma of this delicious herb.

Horatiki- Traditional Greek Village Salad- Chop chunks of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers into a bowl.  Add a few slivered onions and green peppers.  Next place Greek Feta Cheese in a block or crumble atop salad.  Toss your favorite Greek Olives over it.  Our favorite olive is Kalamata Olives from the Kalamata region of Greece.   Pour Organic Greek Olive Oil generously over the salad.   Crush dried oregano in your hands and sprinkle over your salad.   When the olive oil and freshly crushed dried oregano are applied they marry the flavors together in a delicious and simple way.  It’s fresh, light and incredibly appetizing.     Enjoy your salad and when you get to the end of your bowl sop up the oil and oregano with a piece of homemade bread, just like we do in Greece. Kali Orexi!  (Good Appetite).

Mythology – According to Greek mythology, the sweet, spicy scent of oregano was created as a gift by the goddess Aphrodite as a symbol of happiness. In ancient Greece, brides and grooms were crowned with a laurel of oregano to bring them happiness.   Oregano plants were also placed on tombs to give peace to departed spirits.  Planted around your home it is said to bring happiness and protection. Hippocrates born about 460 BC was the first to speak about the healing properties of oregano.  He was born on the island of Kos.  The island had an Asklipion which was a place for healing and prayer dedicated to the Ancient healer Asklipeous who was also the son of the God Apollo.  Hippocrates father, Heracledes was an excellent doctor and a priest there.  His grandfather was a Prothiereas in Asklipion which is the highest degree of a priest to the ancients.  Although we view Hippocrates as the father of modern day medicine we can see his knowledge was handed down to him from many generations before. Prayer and healing were always connected.

Healing Properties Of Oregano- Oregano’s power to heal has been known for many centuries.   Oregano oil derived from the leaves has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-microbial properties.   It is used as a painkiller and anti-inflammatory. Oregano tea is a treatment for indigestion, coughs, and to stimulate menstruation. The oil of oregano is used for toothache, and in some cosmetics. It could also be used as a laxative for its cathartic effect. The leaves and flowering stems are natural antiseptics because of high thymol content. Ancient Greeks made creams derived from Oregano leaves and then applied them to sore, aching muscles.   It was also used by Traditional Chinese doctors to treat fever, vomiting and diarrhea, jaundice and itchy skin.  In Europe it continues to be used to aid digestion and soothe coughs.  Oregano has a wide reaching health benefits, but it is mostly associated with immune system health.   When food is marinade in Oregano it will aid in the digestion which may be one of the reasons it was originally added to Greek cuisine in ancient times. 

Oregano has extremely high levels of antioxidants and antimicrobial compounds.  One teaspoon of oregano has the same antioxidant power (ORAC) of two cups of red grapes.  It contains the phytochemical Quercetin, which is known to slow cancer growth and also promote apoptosis (natural cell death) in cancer cells.   Oregano is a good source of Vitamin K and Iron.

Oregano contains carvacrol; a molecule that may help offset the spread of cancer cells by working as a natural disinfectant. Carvacrol is also present in marjoram, mint, thyme, basil, and parsley. Marinating foods with oregano may also reduce the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) — chemicals created when meat is cooked at high temperatures. HCAs have been found to increase cancer risk in animals.

Oregano oil has also shown promise in preventing food-borne illnesses caused by pathogens like listeria, salmonella, E. coli, and Shigella dysenteria. Adding it to foods not only helps kill the bacteria, but may also alleviate food poisoning symptoms.

The Active ingredients in Oregano oil are Thymol – a natural fungicide and antiseptic, Carvacrol – found to be effective against various bacterial infections, Terpenes – known for powerful antibacterial properties,  Rosmarinic acid – an antioxidant that prevents free radical damage,  Naringin – which inhibits the growth of cancer cells and helps boost the antioxidants, and  Beta-caryophyllin (E-BCP) – this substance inhibits inflammation.   Nutrients like vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium, manganese, copper, boron, and niacin are also found in oregano oil.

Physical Characteristics– Greek Oregano, in bloom, reaches a height of almost two feet. Like all culinary oreganos, its flower is white. Its leaves are coarse, oval, and fuzzy. Leaves range from 5 to 8 inch long; they are dark green when fresh and light green when dried.

It’s a hardy, bushy perennial herb, and a member of the mint (Lamiaceae) family. It’s native to Europe, although it grows in many areas around the world.

Oregano is sold fresh and dried as cuttings of flower tops and leaves packaged in disposable containers or as dried, ground leaves packaged in sprinkle-pour bottles.

Not all oreganos are equal. Greek Oregano (rigani) is a subspecies with the Latin name Origanum vulgare (previously Origanum Heracleoticum or Oreganum Heraclites). Look at oregano package labeling to identify it.  Different oreganos have variations in flavors and healing properties.

Oregano Tea-For a warm spicy tea that can settle the stomach or soothe a cough use one to two teaspoons of dried herb per cup of boiling water. Let it steep 10 minutes, drain herb and drink tea.

I hope you enjoyed this journey learning about Greek Oregano in all its glory.

Στην υγειά μας! (stin iyá mas!), To Our Health and Well Being,