Celebrating Dill

Herb of the Year 2010

By Conrad Richter

Every year since 1995 the International Herb Association has selected a noteworthy herb to be the Herb of the Year. In 2010 that honour went to the ever humble, but never lowly, Anethum graveolens – or just "dill" to the less snooty gardeners, cooks and herbalists among us. The graceful lacy and always odoriferous dill is now a member of a select group of honorees that includes lavender, rosemary, basil, garlic and last year’s bay laurel.

When I served on the board of directors of the IHA more than a decade ago I was skeptical of the Herb of the Year concept: I did not see how highlighting plants grown and used for centuries – for millennia even – would garner much attention from a public always looking for the next hot thing. But gradually I have come round to the idea, and now I see it as a great way to revisit herbs that we have come take for granted. I see it as a chance to relearn – or learn for the first time – the stories that these plants have to tell if only we take the time to stop and smell, taste and love them again.

Dill’s story no doubt began many millennia ago. I can’t tell you exactly when early man first trampled over a wild dill plant somewhere in the Mediterranean region, but dill’s strong scent and tall stature must have made quite a first impression. And if it was not love at first sight, it surely was a love that grew.

We know that Hippocrates used dill to dress burns suffered by soldiers in ancient Greece. Already it had a reputation as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial – perfect for those nasty wounds of war inflicted by catapulted flaming projectiles. The ancient Greek name for the herb, athenon, was a somewhat unimaginative contraction of ano which means "upward" and theo which means "I run" – neither of which referred to the gleeful user of dill, but rather to the herb itself and its fast-growing, upright habit. Half of the modern botanical name, Anethum graveolens, is the latinized version of athenon.

Somewhere along the way the herb acquired a number of aliases. Its Old Norse name was dilla, which begot the modern English name, a reminder that Britain was once overrun by Vikings. Dilla means to soothe, to lull, or to calm – perhaps in apt reference to the plant’s ability to put a colicky baby to sleep. But those marauding Norsemen invited themselves to other countries throughout northern Europe and left the Germans and the Dutch with the same name, and the Finns have the close-sounding till. The Slavs apparently escaped the Nordic fun and they came up with their own names for dill that derive from "smell", "aroma", and "to be fragrant". So today dill is known as koper in Polish, kopr in Czech, kopur in Bulgarian, and krip in Ukrainian. The Romance countries stuck close to the original Latin anethum, and so today we have aneth in France, anetto in Italy and eneldo in Spain.

Those witty French are never ones to miss a chance to put you in your place, and so they have a more colourful name for dill: fenouil bâtard or "bastard fennel". Clearly this name wasn’t meant to boost sales in France. My guess is that dill’s close cousin, fennel, the modern herb of choice for quieting babies, was already preferred for neonatal care in early France. But the forthright Dutch outdid the French and called the plant stinkende vinke or "stinking fennel". Funnily enough, the second part of the botanical name, graveolens, means "heavy-scented" or worse – "unpleasant smell". Seems that dill has been behind the nomenclatural eight ball from the get-go.

How could a plant that we think tastes and smells great get such bad ratings in the past? The answer may lie in how herbs and spices were used in foods in the first place. The idea of adding herbs to foods was probably pretty radical to the early hunters and gatherers who were just happy to wolf down half-cooked meat before being chased away by lions and tigers. All that hurried eating and running surely caused serious indigestion, and perhaps the unfortunate results thereof. Then someone got the idea to take herbs for sickness, maybe from watching dogs that eat plants when they don’t feel well. Somewhere along the way a smart hunter held her or his nose and put some stinking herbs in food – for health, not for flavour. So it came to be that in spite of odors so foul to the early adopters, herbs made foods safer and more digestible.

Those Brits!
Be careful who you call a ‘dillweed’. ‘Dillweed’ is British slang for a slow-witted dolt. Maybe that’s what the Brits called the invading Norsemen who liked to use dill to lull or calm the mind. On the other hand, in America, there is nothing wrong with calling someone a ‘dilly’. That’s American slang for someone or something remarkable. But don’t call anyone a ‘dilly’ in Britain because that means a fool or a penis.

Of course we don’t really know all this for sure, but we can draw inferences from similar stories of many plants. From the totality of this knowledge we can paint a picture that herbs were added to food for utilitarian reasons other than taste. To illustrate I often tell the stories of two herbs, epazote and thyme.

Epazote, a Mexican herb that is hot, hot, hot right now – you can’t make authentic Mexican food without it – is my opening argument. Once better known outside Mexico as American wormseed, it is a close relative to lamb’s quarters, the common weed. Epazote produces a spray of stems laden with seemingly millions of tiny seeds that smell truly disgusting. The only way to describe the smell is that it is like a can of worms. In fact, the smell is probably so bad that even worms don’t like it, as wormseed is a potent vermifuge. A vermifuge is an agent that kills intestinal worms, and American wormseed was the vermifuge on everyone’s medicine shelf in the days before meat inspectors, when people got worms from eating meat.

Intestinal worms are still endemic in Mexico and throughout Central America. Fortunately epazote is embedded in the cuisine, being used liberally in any soup or stew made with meat or in side orders of beans. I imagine that a wise Aztec leader once decreed “Thou shall use epazote in every food containing meat.” Somehow over time the association with food got locked in, despite the foul odor, to the point where humans have evolved into rabid epazote lovers. Figure that!

A second example is thyme. Thyme is one of nature’s most potent antiseptic agents. Its main essential oil, thymol, is heavy munitions against the bacteria that cause meat to rot. In the days before refrigeration, probably long before recorded history, some smart butcher realized that if you rub meat liberally with fresh thyme the meat would last a few days longer. Maybe the butcher found also that the strong smell of thyme helped to mask the smell of the meat when it did start to go bad, thereby extending the shelf life by a few days. What butcher would resist such a miraculous profit-extender as thyme? Of course if you are paying attention you already realize that an association with meat must have locked in over time (sorry). In those earliest days when the innovation of using thyme was first spreading in the meat industry I can well imagine the purist foodies of that age sniffing, “I like my meat pure and fresh-killed and I won’t touch that inferior stuff laced with a preservative!” Well, time (sorry!) has a way of turning the tables and now the foodies of today wouldn’t dare cook a steak, or any red meat for that matter, without thyme.

There are numerous examples like this, of interesting vignettes that seem to fit a grand picture I like to paint. I could go on and bore you with them, but this article is about dill, and we need to ask if we can apply these ideas to dill.

Chicken salad with cucumber and fresh dill

It turns out that we can. Think of the cucumber. The flesh is quite digestible but the skin not so much, at least not until the so-called burpless varieties were introduced some decades ago. Before then, eating the skin caused indigestion or worse in many people. Our ancestors, facing hard winters and no international web of food supply like we have today, had to find ways to preserve food for the winter months. They dried, canned and pickled their foods for the most part. The cucumber, which is easy to grow during the summer months, easy to save seeds of from year to year, and whose white flesh is highly nutritious, could be preserved if pickled in vinegar. Trouble was, you had to leave the skins on or they would not keep as well. Well, what to do? A winter of burping and flatulence from eating pickles while cooped up in a little house surely was not everybody’s idea of a fun time. Someone had the bright idea of adding sprigs and seeds of dill to the pickle jars. Dill, you recall, was known to relieve a baby’s colic, so it stands to reason that adding it to pickles might forestall the negative effects of the little cucumbers still in their skins. And so the dill pickle was born.

Let’s take a closer look at dill’s health benefits. We know a bit about what it can do for digestion. Dill is first and foremost a carminative. That’s an agent that eases bloating due to gas, and it’s a good thing to have when you are flatulent or burping or suffering from hiccups caused by trapped gas. Actually, dill does more than just deal with gas, it improves the whole digestive process. For example, it is known to be an antispasmodic which would help to relax the colon and relieves constipation. And armed with its antimicrobial weaponry, it helps to stop diarrhea and dysentery. Even at the other end, its antimicrobial action helps to freshen the mouth when you chew on dill seeds or wash the mouth with an extract of dill. The overall effect on the digestive system is that dill improves the digestibility of foods because the gut gets better at extracting nutrients from foods and fewer nutrients are lost in excrement.

So far dill’s health portfolio looks pretty good, wouldn’t you say? But there is more. Dill is high in monoterpenes which trigger anticancer effects by activating the body’s own freedom-fighter enzymes. For example, dill is known to activate an enzyme called glutathione S-transferase which neutralizes carcinogens and generally detoxifies the body. Dill also has an antihistamine effect that helps to clear respiratory congestion caused by allergies or cough. And flavanoids in dill are known to help regulate menstrual cycles.

Still there’s more: Dill also has positive effects on the brain and the nervous system. It calms the mind, eases headaches, and helps to overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed. It is good for insomnia also. A little essential oil in burners or vaporizers works quite well, or adding some to a massage oil blend or to the bath water, or even to homemade creams and lotions – all help settle the mind.

There is a theory – and I am a strong believer in it – that the mind and digestive system are intimately connected. If one is not well, the other won’t be either. We all know what it’s like to go to bed with stomach indigestion: Sleep does not come easily. And many of us know that mental anxiety often provokes distress in the gut. After all, they don’t call weak-minded people gutless for nothing! So if there is anything to the theory then dill’s dual effects on digestion and on the mind fit together rather nicely.

Which all adds up to a lot of happy reasons for adding dill to food every day. But if you are like me you’ll need help remembering this happy fact. With apologies to fans of apples here’s a little reminder to stick on the fridge: “A bit of dill a day, helps keep the shrink away.”

And how might we use a bit of dill in food every day? We first need to recognize that dill is really two very different things: Weed and seeds. Understanding dillweed and the seeds is a good place to start if you have ever wondered about the difference between herbs and spices.

Dillweed is the ‘herb’ side of the split personality. The fresh leaves have a pleasant, light, ‘crisp grassy’ flavour. They can be dried, but the flavour of fresh dill is vastly better. Actually, it is hard to imagine why anyone would use the dried stuff except maybe in emergencies. Maybe dried dillweed makes sense for food photo shoots or commercially prepared foods where looks are more important than flavour. If you need to preserve dillweed, just chop or snip the leaves into an ice cube tray, add water, and freeze.

Peeled and sliced cucumber with sour cream and fresh dillweed is a classic summertime treat, easy to make, and refreshing in hot weather. To save time don’t bother to chop the leaves, just grab the scissors and snip the finely-divided leaves right onto the cukes. And don’t stop there, keep on snipping – on potatoes, fish, grilled pork chops, bean soup, and salads. No one has much time for cooking these days, so a good recipe that is quick and easy to prepare is pure gold. Like a simple fish sauce made with fresh dill, yogurt and Dijon mustard. Or chilled cucumber soup made with dill. These and other easy recipes can be found in the International Herb Association’s book, Dill: Herb of the Year 2010 (available from Richters).

Seeds are the spicier side of dill. Technically they are fruits, not seeds, but only botanists call them fruits. The ‘seeds’ have a warm inviting taste, reminiscent of caraway. They dry well and store for several years. The seed heads, freshly picked from the garden, are picturesque when added to pickle jars. Besides dill pickles, the seeds make wonderful beet pickles and marinated cucumber. Jim Long, known for his funky little books on herbs, has a recipe for dill seed crackers in his Easy Homemade Crackers with Herbs (available from Richters). Dill seeds can be used to make vinegars too.

It is not surprising that dill seeds taste a bit like caraway because dill is a member of the same plant family that caraway belongs to, the Umbellifereae, or what botanists now call the Apiaceae. This family is one of the three or four most important to the herb world. Besides dill and caraway, the family includes the likes of angelica, anise, cilantro, cumin, fennel, lovage, parsley and others. Carrot and parsnip belong also. The family’s trademark flower heads, or umbels, look like upturned umbrellas, which is why I still like to use the old family name.

Like the rest of the Umbellifereae, dill is propagated by seeds, not by cuttings. Another family trait is that it hates any disturbance of its roots. If its roots are disturbed by transplanting the plant swings into a panic mode and immediately bolts, or goes to flower and sets seeds, so a new generation can take over responsibility for perpetuating the species. For herbs such as dill, fennel and cilantro, premature bolting is a royal pain because it comes at the expense of leaf production, and the plants expire sooner than wished for.

Field of dill at harvest time

Dill should be sown directly in the garden so the roots are not disturbed. If the seeds are sown in pots first, make sure to transplant the whole root ball intact without damaging the roots. Technically, dill is a short-lived perennial but it is always treated as an annual and reseeded each year. Dill prefers full sun and well-drained, moderately rich soil of normal pH (5.5-6.5). There are between 200 and 1000 seeds per gram and typical seed packets contain hundreds of seeds. It takes 15-40 grams of seeds to seed a thousand pots (worth thousands of dollars at retail prices!) or about 9-12 kilograms to plant a hectare of farmland. Seeds can be broadcast over the entire area to be planted or planted in rows a meter apart. Within the rows seeds should be spaced 1 cm (0.5 in) apart. Seeds germinate in 4-8 days if sown in pots or in 10-14 days in the field.

Monia dill, one of nine varieties available from Richters

Most dill varieties reach a meter (4 feet) in height by the second month of growth, but there is no need to wait that long to start cutting dillweed. Plants at any size can be cut as needed; but once cut they will not grow back, so more seeds need to be planted for a continuous supply.

Richters carries nine varieties of dill). The varieties differ in leaf colour, yields, disease resistance, and shelf life, but these differences are important only to commercial growers. For home gardeners, most varieties will produce nice crops of dillweed and seeds. Fernleaf dill is the one exception: it is notably smaller and slower to bolt, and is best suited for smaller spaces, and for dillweed only.

Dill lovers have a lot to celebrate. Dill is easy to grow, easy to use, and adding it to food is like taking a vitamin pill every day. It’s hard not to get excited about dill!

Conrad Richter is president of Richters Herbs, Goodwood, ON (www.richters.com). © 2010 Conrad Richter.
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