Source for high quality Italian oregano?
We learned something the other night about oregano that the rest of you probably know, namely that not all oregano is the same. My wife made a batch of tomato sauce and complained that it was bitter. She is no great fan of oregano to begin with, but she is a great fan of David Waltuck's book of Staff Meals at Chanterelle. The recipe called for a large amount of oregano, which she added (dried). We went through the list of ingredients to see what might have caused the bitterness by recreating the red sauce, then adding wine, oregano, thyme, or basil to small batches. It seemed to incriminate the oregano, which had been opened for only a few weeks.
The next night we spoke with some foodie friends, who thought it might be that we had used Greek oregano, which, they said, becomes bitter with prolonged cooking. Their preference is for Italian oregano, which they grow themselves, harvesting only the buds and drying them for the rest of the year.
Sure enough, when we checked it out, there are a number of species: Greek (Oreganum onites), Italian (O. O. heracleoticum), Syrian, Turkish, Cuban, Mexican--many of which aren't even in the same family.
So..... my question is about a source for Italian oregano instead of having to wait for our friends garden next summer...! First, are they correct, or can the problem be circumvented by adding the herbs just before finishing the cooking of the sauce? If the issue is about the species of oregano, where can I find a reliable online source of Italian oregano?
There is some confusion about Oregano species names. Wikipedia (you can trust that, yes?) says Origanum vulgare hirtum – is called both Italian Oregano and Greek Oregano, but others say that Greek oregano is the hirtum cultivar and that the Italian variety is either the species Oreganum vulgare, or the cultivar Oreganum x majoricum. Whatever, the seeds of all of these are easily available, and if you are in a medium warm climate, you can grow your own. (Unfortunately, I am in the Northeast where Oregano has not been reliable for me despite several attempts.) You can find it on the web. Local Harvest (www.LocalHarvest.org) has "Italian" oregano plants for sale, but doesn't specify the variety. Angela's Italian Oregano (www.oreganofromitaly.com/) offers 7 bags for $11.
In addition to Oakland's markethallfoods.com (on earlier thread), Coluccio+Sons in Brooklyn usually has bags of oregano from either Sicily or Campania on stalks. Store sales only. Zingermans also offers wild oregano stalks at $12. Calabria Pork Store on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx usually has bags, but not sure about their web offerings.
I've grown Greek oregano but much prefer the Sicilian I usually grow. The leaves were very small on the Greek and the plant didn't grow well at all. I didn't get enough to even decide if I liked the flavor, unlike my usual Sicilian which grows like a weed.
But if you are buying McCormicks or such, I think it is all the same oregano: the Greek is finely ground while Italian (or does it just say Oregano?) is crumbled. Guessing it's domestically grown, or Mexican. I've seen those stalks at Italian stores which are definitely imported from Italy.
I 've had oregano labeled both Greek AND Italian, and there really was no difference. Also, from what I have read, the Greek oregano is the same as Italian oregano....the same plant is used...just depends on where it's sold. Pehaps you are using Mexican oregano? Now THAT is an entirely different flavor. Still, I've used both interchangeably a few times, when I wasn't paying attention. :-) This is from Penzey's, where I just bought my Turkish O (which is pretty much the same as the Greek/Italian).
Mediterranean and Mexican oregano are two different plants, but because they are used in the same way and have a somewhat similar flavor they are both called oregano. Mediterranean oregano grows wild on the hilly mountainsides of southern Europe and is an essential ingredient in so many of the dishes from the region. For Italian spaghetti sauces to Greek salads to Turkish kebobs, the sweet, strong flavor of Mediterranean oregano is perfect. Our travel to this area has allowed us to import some wonderful Turkish Oregano, the best Mediterranean Oregano we've seen in years. Mexican oregano is stronger and less sweet, well-suited to the spicy, hot, cumin-flavored dishes of Mexico and Central America- perfect for chili and salsa. Both types of oregano should be added in the beginning of cooking, so the flavor has time to come out and meld with the other flavors of the dish. Add while browning onions or beef for both spaghetti sauce and chili.
Thanks for relaying your experience, FitMom4Life. If wikipedia is to be believed, there are a number of species of organo, including ones that are found predominately in the areas mentioned above, but perhaps their flavors are nearly indistinguishable (the Mexican and Cuban are not in the same family, as noted above).
+1 for the Sicilian oregano recommendation -- the most fragrant and the finest of the bunch. Visit Italian markets and ask for the imported oregano in bags whose leaves are still on the stems. Take the bag of oregano and smell it. If the fragrance smells appealing to you, then in all likelihood it will also taste appealing. Buy it. Removing the leaves can be somewhat labor intensive, but definitely worthwhile. Bags can range anywhere from four to twelve dollars depending on the store.