The Many Moods of Oregano

My oregano patch looks extremely neglected this week (photo above); the stalks seem to have suddenly bloomed and grown a few inches.  They were fine a couple of weeks ago, when I harvested my supply of fragrant leaves for this year (ok, maybe more like four weeks, but still).  In many old fashioned Mexican recipes, a frequent item on the ingredient list is a “manojo de hierbas de olor” (“handful of aromatic herbs”) in which any detail on what herbs to include is left unknown.  One of my books on Mexican cuisine (El libro de la cocina Mexicana, Sussana Palazuelos et al, 1991) specifies that fresh thyme, sweet marjoram and oregano form the perfect trilogy in the manojo for a balanced flavour in many Mexican dishes, such as I have used in my tinga poblana, or in my previous post, for barbacoa.

At the back of the same book, almost as an afterthought whispered in one’s ear, the authors mention that Mexican oregano is different from its European counterpart, and that there are at least two plants called Mexican Oregano: Poliomintha longiflora and Lippia graveolens.  Moreover, other sources describe them as having different flavour profiles: strong and minty for the first, and sweet and grassy-citrusy for the latter.  No wonder when I was in Mexico, I always thought oregano tasted wrong in my mom’s otherwise delicious pizzas and moussaka, and often asked her to omit it.

When I cultivated oregano for the first time, here in Canada, I learned that it is better to purchase a plant at the nursery, instead of trying to start from seed, mainly for two reasons. First, there are about 45 species in the genus Origanum, but seed companies often only carry the strong Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum).  The second is that some of the more desirable varieties for culinary applications, such as Oreganum x marjoricum, are infertile hybrids, which means that they do not produce viable seed at all.  Even at the nursery, a batch of oregano plants might be mixed from different places of origin, with different growing conditions and hence, different aroma and flavour.  The best way to pick oregano at gardening centres is to take some time to walk around, sniffing different plants until you find the ones you like the best.  I know I did not pick a Mexican oregano, because Poliomintha and Lippia are not winter hardy for my 6B area, and I have had the same oregano plant for years now, but I got a relatively mild specimen, probably with some marjoram hybridization, so I use it both for my Mexican and Mediterranean dishes just fine.

I will stop here, afraid that the previous text has served mostly as a lullaby, but for a complete review on the genus Oreganum, including sweet marjoram (Oreganum majorana), check out the Herb Society files.

Some specialty stores carry dry Mexican oregano in jars, and the best approach when it is not available at all, is to start with a few bay leaves for the “sweet and grassy-citrusy” touch, and then add whichever oregano is at hand at the cook’s discretion; more of the mild hybrids, or just a hint of the stronger Greek varieties.  Going back to the Mexican “handful of aromatic herbs”, thyme and marjoram would become the base, and then get supplemented with dry Mexican oregano, or as described before.

manojo de hierbas


FUN FACT – Here we go again! On the photo above, notice the two different shapes of bay leaf.  According to the gourmet sleuth: “Litsea glaucescens, or Mexican bay (also called laurel, right) is the bay leaf grown in Mexico and preferred for Mexican cooking.  It is not the same plant typically found in the U.S. (Laurus nobilis, left) which is a stronger, harsher tasting bay than the mellow Mexican version. The leaves [of Mexican bay] are long and tapering with slightly fluted edges.”  The recommendation is to use less bay if laurel is not available, but I love the flavour of bay leaves, so I frequently use more than what the recipes call for, anyway.

 

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6 thoughts on “The Many Moods of Oregano

  1. It seems that the two Mexican oreganos are not even in the same genus as the European plants. Is that so? I have never really used fresh oregano, so it’s not a plant that I’ve ever tried to cultivate. Not sure I would ever use enough to justify trying. Can you give me more sense of the flavors? (There’s a real challenge for a writer!)

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    1. Yes, you are right, the Mexican oreganos are not in the genus Oreganum. Poliomintha is in the same family as oregano, the mint family; its flavour is described sometimes as a mix of rosemary and mint, and I think this is the one I was exposed to in Mexico. Lippia is in the verbena family, so it should have a more “floral” profile, and its essential oil composition lists thymol (thyme) and a bit of eucalyptol. “Oregano” is really a category of flavours; one of my books on herbs does not include oregano, only marjoram (which is an Oreganum sp.). The distinctive component in oregano essential oil is carvacrol, that really bitter flavour that some describe as “earthy”. For me, bay leaves and a “marjoram-y” oregano do the trick to act as Mexican oregano, but that’s just my personal taste.

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  2. That’s very interesting. I didn’t reaiize tht there are different flavors of oregano. Although maybe not pizza, but the citrusy one sounds like it might be useful to brighten a soup if a lemon is too much but it needs a little something something

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    1. Yes, absolutely, like a meaty broth, I am thinking. There are indeed several Mexican soups that get a sprinkle of oregano at the table, although it can rarely be too citrusy for Mexican food, so a sprinkle of lime juice promptly follows 🙂

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