Myrtle (called ‘mirto‘ in Italian) is a lesser known aromatic plant typical of the Mediterranean maquis shrubland. As it needs hot summers and relatively warm winters, this evergreen is typical of the southern regions of Europe – although it can be found on the south-west coasts of England, where the climate is mitigated by the Gulf stream. In Italy, myrtle is found mostly in Sardinia; but it grows also in other areas of Central Italy such as Tuscany, where it’s called ‘mortella‘.
As it’s a lush shrub with gorgeous shiny dark green leaves, myrtle has been used to decorate gardens already in Roman times. Then, this plant was also considered sacred to Venus, the goddess of beauty and sexual desire; for a long time, myrtle berries have been considered to be an aphrodisiac food.
Sardinian cuisine is the only cuisine in Europe where myrtle is consistently used to flavour traditional dishes. The myrtle leaves are used to add flavour to pasta sauces, as in our Spaghetti with Anchovies, ‘Nduja & Myrtle Leaves, or to spice up game meat; particularly famous and appreciated also outside of Sardinia is the ‘porceddu‘, a suckling pig roasted on a wood fire.
Myrtle leaves can be used in general in much the same way as any other aromatic herb. We suggest myrtle in lieu of thyme for a Fresh Cheese and Sausage Bruschetta, and to give an extra kick to our Homemade Focaccia with Potatoes and Black Garlic.
The most famous Sardinian liqueur, ‘Mirto‘, has myrtle as its main ingredient. The white variety of this liqueur is made by macerating unripe white myrtle berries and myrtle leaves, whilst the red variety takes its color from ripe myrtle berries.
Myrtle berries are also one of the spices that give mortadella, the famous Italian sausage made in Bologna with finely ground cooked pork meat, its peculiar flavour. If you’re not familiar with mortadella, look for it at your local Italian delicacies shop and try it out in one of our recipes: Fried Mortadella Skewers or Beef and Mortadella Savoy Cabbage Rolls.