Rue, botanically known as ruta graveolens, is an evergreen, flowering herb featuring green-bluish leaves. It is native to the Western part of Asia and the Mediterranean region and thrives in partial or full sun. The plant is a hardy plant and can thrive in dry conditions as long as it is established. In addition, rue is perfectly happy in poor soil.
Ruta graveolens is a fascinating plant. It produces small, yellow flowers, which along, with its foliage, give off a strong, obnoxious smell. This explains why the plant’s genus, graveolens, is loosely translated to mean “having an offensive or strong smell.
[Disclaimer: In large quantities such amounts exceeding 120 milligrams, rue is known to cause powerful cramps, hallucinations, and twitching. The plant has been cited for causing phototoxicity on contact which can lead to severe burns and blisters.]
In days gone by, rue was the herb of choice in Roman kitchens where it was used in spicy pastes. The herb’s flowers and leaves were commonly used alongside coriander, garlic, hard cheese, and celery. Its botanical name, “Ruta” is derived from Greek, meaning “to set free”. This was due to rue’s chief use in breaking spells cast by witches. In addition, it was a key component in antidotes for toxins.
The plant is also considered a herb of repentance or grace in accordance with its use in Catholic rituals. It is said that Leonardo de Vinci and Michelangelo used this plant regularly for its ability to boost creativity and eyesight.
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Today, rue is no longer an important cooking herb because we have drastically changed our culinary tastes. In the past, using a herb that imparted bitter undertones to a dish and helped to balance the salty, sweet, sour and hot flavors was considered a top culinary skill, but this is no longer the case.
Ruta graveolens is among the few plants considered heirloom herbs because it has remained unchanged since ancient times. No attempts have been made to selectively grow certain strains of the plant or to hybridize it. What you see growing around is virtually the same plant that grew in rue’s native habitat years ago.
In spite of falling out of favor as a culinary delight, rue is still used today in some Italian recipes passed down through generations of renowned cooks. In addition, Italians make a brandy known as Candolini Grappa Ruta which has rue as one of the main ingredients. The herb gives the liqueur a bitter taste which some people find too pungent for their liking.
Rue flowers and leaves are known to go well with sour or acidic dishes such as tomato sauces or capers. The herb tames and tones down their bitterness or sour taste, making the dishes sing.
Though rue has fallen out of favor as a cooking herb, it is still a great herb that enhances the flavor of dishes as long as it is used in moderation.