This post first appeared in October 2009, but I would like to remind you of this refreshing, fuschia tinted drink, which is perfect on these hot summer days. I have also been making it lately with Thai basil, which produces a lovely peach colored liquid.
Few things remind me more of summer than basil. Its interplay of bitter peppery notes and sweet licorice-anise is made vivid by the dark, tangy verdancy, a perfect counterpoint. In perfumery, it is a classical herbal note, used in both masculine and feminine fragrances for its cooling aromatic effect. Paired with citrus, it makes for a scintillating sensation. Thus, Hermes in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena relies on the green note of basil to wrap its grapefruit accords in fragrances like Hermessence Rose Ikebana and Eau de Pamplemousse Rose. In fact, the combination of basil and lemon is a perfect one to appropriate for gastronomical explorations, whether one wishes to compose a simple salsa or a fish marinade. Furthermore, I would like to suggest another idea–a chilled drink that traces its roots to the Middle Eastern sherbet tradition. It is an essence of summer in a glass.
Sherbet (from Arabic sharba, a drink, which also gave us a word syrup) is a cold, sweetened drink made with fruit, spices and flowers. Although in Western cooking basil tends to have savory connotations, it is remarkably versatile, given its unique spicy spectrum. Opal basil is a cultivar of the more commonly found sweet basil, and while it provides a gorgeous fuschia color to the drink, the flavor is similar, if a bit milder. You can also experiment with different basil varieties, such as lemon and Thai basil, which offer different profiles, the former being more floral and citrusy and the latter–heavier on spice and woods. The recipe below comes from my Baku, Azerbaijan based aunt, who was famous for her sherbets, from classical rose to white peach to saffron carrot. I am reluctant to give the quantities of sugar, because it depends on your sweetness preference. I tend to gravitate towards sherbet that is tart, with a subtle sweet accent, however a classical version is unapologetically sweet.
This simple recipe can be a starting point for experiments. When I cannot find opal basil, I use regular sweet basil in combination with raspberries (add them to boiling water along with basil,) which results in a truly special drink. Or else, replace basil with lemon thyme and combine it with blackberries. Or pair sour cherry with mint; strawberry with lemon verbena; peach with rose-scented geranium…
Opal Basil Sherbet
One bunch of basil
Juice of one lemon
6 cups of water
Sugar to taste
Bring water to boil and pour over basil. Initially, the liquid will take on an inky blue hue, but it will turn dark pink once you add acid. Let basil steep for about 15 minutes, then add lemon juice and a few pieces of yellow peel (avoiding the bitter white part.) Add sugar to taste and let the liquid cool completely. Strain and chill.
Photography © Bois de Jasmin.