The Sprig of Rosemary and The Potato Principle

In which we discover that its amazing what you can fit under a rosemary bush, that you should never forbid people opening chests without explaining why and that fathers can be very unreasonable. We also learn that wind can be helpful as well as mischievous and that rosemary is frankly, completely underrated.

Did you enjoy that? I loved it, It was nice to hear a variation of the tale that was a little bit different. It also gave me the opportunity to revel in the history and folklore of rosemary; as well as treat you to one of my favourite recipes which I learned from a sadly closed restaurant.

The Animal Bridegroom

However first we really need to look at our story. This tale forms one of a type known on the Aarne-Thompson Uther index as Search for the Lost Husband ATU 425 forming one of the subtypes of this tale type 425A – The Animal Bridegroom. This doesn’t feel quite right to me, as although it was a serpent skin our heroine finds in the forbidden chest, we never really see him in serpent form anywhere in the story. I suppose the story does feel a little unformed, possibly in the translation from Catalan to English or maybe just a story that hadn’t quite reached its full potential before it was captured like a butterfly and pinned. When I adapted the tale I was very tempted to embroider over those holes but just about resisted in order to honour the story.

Basile is Back Again

You probably know the most famous of this tale type – East of the Sun and West of the Moon. In an earlier episode I also explored this in the earliest known literary version of this tale Pinto Smalto from Tale of Tales by Giambattisa Basile. I also don’t want to give too much away but I have another tale from ATU 425 in my next episode. I hope you’ll find it an interesting comparison to this story.

This version is a Catalan tale, an area of which I have very little experience. There are limited numbers of popular tales from the region that are available in English translation and my Spanish is frankly poor. The one notable feature of this tale is that the husband in this instance is not enchanted into his animal shape. He wears it and puts it off at any time he wishes.

There is an enchantment in place that means all his treasures, castle and comforts disappear when his wife disobeys an instruction not to open a specific chest. Equally strangely, although she regains her husband’s memory of her and they escape; the treasures and castle don’t reappear. They return to her family home and although happy, we aren’t informed that the couple are particularly prosperous. It would seem that he has given up magic.

A Lack of Enchantress

There is also no ogress or witch or enchantress in this tale, just an unpleasant princess. I do feel a little bit sorry for her in fact. Her father is so desperate to marry her off he nearly insists on her marrying in rags. She isn’t even rude to our heroine, paying her fairly for the items being sold.

Rosemary plays a big part in the tale being both the reason for the heroine’s original capture and the instrument by which she returns her beloved’s memory. Was there ever a better chance to use the quote from Hamlet:

‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember.’

It’s been Around A While

I certainly can’t think of a better lead in to talking about the wonders of rosemary. We should start at the beginning with the history of the herb and how it got its name. The first mention of rosemary is found on cuneiform stone tablets as early as 5000 BCE. After that not much is known, except that Egyptians used it in their burial rituals. There is no further mention of it in writing until the ancient Greeks and Romans although obviously it existed in between.

Rosemary is a fragrant evergreen shrub with leaves like needles and is native to Asia and the Mediterranean. It often grows near the sea which is how it got its name from the latin rosmarinus – literally ‘dew of the sea’. Its form changed in English to rosemary possibly connected to the similarity of English words ‘rose’ and ‘Mary’. The Virgin Mary comes into our story later.

Rosemary in a Cold Climate

So how, I imagine you must be thinking, did it get to England and how does it survive in this cold climate? Well, its pretty hardy and survives down to -10 degrees celsius so that fixes the second problem. The first question is trickier to answer. There are a few schools of thought. Some think it came over with with the Romans, others believe it returned with fighters from the Crusades. Alternatively it is also suggested that Emperor Charlemagne insisted on it being planted in all monastery gardens and farms in the 8th Century.

There is also written evidence of a letter from 1338 from Jeanne de Valois to Queen Phillipa which was sent with cuttings of the plant (amongst other herbs), praising its virtues. The original manuscript is in the British Museum. There begin to be references to rosemary in Herbals following this time and it became widely used. There is even a reference to it in the Forme of Cury in 1425. That does sound pretty conclusive doesn’t it; but the truth is that it was probably a multitude of sources. It almost certainly came over with the Romans as they used it extensively for culinary, medical and spiritual reasons. It was then allowed to die out/became disused when they left, and then became reinvigorated through Charlemagne and then by the royal court.

Its All About Popular

Its a very popular herb and its use is prevalent throughout history in folklore, medicine, magic and food. Before we discuss some of these I wish to issue a disclaimer: none of the following is a recommendation. Some of these uses could be considered dangerous to your health. Rosemary might be a natural product with many uses but natural doesn’t always mean good, think arsenic.

Anyway to quote from Buffy, ‘a vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend’ so always check with a qualified professional if you have any concerns.

It has long been connected with improved concentration and memory, Greek students used to wear garlands around their heads for examinations apparently. It is also renowned as a good headache remedy either topically with essential oil or steeped in a tea. The Tudors considered it a stimulant and good to take to increase liveliness. It was also made into lozenges and teas for the treatment of colds and coughs.

Four Thieves, Vinegar and a Plague

Where rosemary is apparently a star is in helping avoid the plague. It is a key ingredient in four thieves vinegar. The story (one of several) is that during the Black Death (the original 14th Century one) a group of thieves from Marseilles who previously had worked as spice merchants were robbing the dead or the sick. When they were caught, they offered to exchange their secret recipe, which had allowed them to commit the robberies without catching the disease, in exchange for leniency.

This vinegar always contained rosemary as well as other herbs. In some versions the thieves were still hanged instead of being burned to death. In others they were allowed to go free. We don’t really know if this happened and if it did, we don’t know if it was herbs or just protective clothing that helped.

What we do know is that people retained this belief that rosemary was effective against the plague and that burning rosemary and rosemary wood helped to protect against infection. In 1603, when bubonic plague killed 38,000 Londoners, demand was so high that the price increased from one shilling for an armful of branches to six shillings for a handful. To put that in perspective, 18 gallons of good ale cost 3 shillings and a whole pig just 1 shilling.

A Hungarian Miracle Cure

Rosemary was also used in Hungary Water, a variant of Rosemary Water. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary started using it to treat her rheumatism and gout at the the age of 72. She said it was advice given to her by a hermit and apparently it did the trick and as she reportedly claimed that she “was not only cured, but recovered my strength, and appeared to all so remarkably beautiful that the King of Poland asked me in marriage.” As he was 26 at the time it was either amazingly effective or there is an element of legend to this tale. The quote comes from document published 275 years after she died and she only lived for four years after she started the treatment so I’ll leave it up to you.

Rosemary was also one of the ingredients in the original Eau de Cologne, which is one of the oldest perfumes still made today. As well as smelling good it was also believed that looking at rosemary and washing your face in rosemary water kept you youthful. It was also used to wash hair as it was thought to add shine to dark hair. It does actually darken hair alongside sage. Alys Fowler in her ‘A Modern Herbal’ has a rinse for dark hair made from chopped rosemary, chopped sage and black tea which she recommends keeping in the fridge to stop fermentation. Well labelled hopefully, but it is effective.

According to Richard Folkard in Plant Lore, Legends & Lyrics in an ancient Italian recipe, the flowers of Rosemary, Rue, Sage, Marjoram, Fennel, Quince are recommended for the preservation of youth. In Bologna, there is an old belief that the flowers of Rosemary, if placed in contact with the skin, and especially, with the heart, give “gaiety and sprightliness.”

Too Much Folklore

Rosemary also appears a lot in folklore and magic, so much so that I can’t fit them all in! Firstly we’ll just pop the belief in that the Virgin Mary is thought to have changed the colour of rosemary flowers by drying her cloak on a rosemary bush whilst escaping with Jesus just in case I forget that I promised to tell you earlier.

Its a rare plant that appears at both weddings and funerals but as Robert Herrick wrote in his Hesperides “Grow for two ends – it matters not at all Be’t for my bridall, or my buriall.” Rosemary was a star player in both ceremonies. Rosemary was often placed in coffins for remembrance by mourners, or in the hands of the dead them selves. Dorothy Bovee Jones quoted Valmont Bomare in his Histoire Naturelle as stating that “when coffins were opened after several years, branches of rosemary that had been placed in the hands of the dead were found to have grown so that they covered the corpse.” Some people even believed that stopped the body from decomposing.

A Wedding Essential

Rosemary has a happier association with weddings. It was used to help remember the wedding vows and rosemary was sometimes dipped into the cups of the bridal couples so they could toast each other. Rosemary was considered to promote faithfulness and a bride would often give her groom a sprig to hold on their wedding night. Dried rosemary was also added to the wedding night bed linen.

Wealthy couples often gave it as wedding favours, the end dipped in gold, then tied with ribbons. It also appeared in bridal wreaths to symbolise love, faithfulness, friendship and kind remembrance of the family she would be leaving behind. Anne of Cleves even wore it at her wedding to Henry VIII, she didn’t lose her head and remained friends with Henry even after the marriage was ended. Perhaps it brought her some luck?

The connection to weddings also promoted its popularity as a love charm.


During the Middle Ages, rosemary would be grown in several pots, each pot named with a potential lover. The answer would be the plant that grew the fastest and strongest. Poppets (cloth dolls) would be stuffed with rosemary to attract a new lover.

It was also said if a person tapped another with a sprig of rosemary with an open bloom, they would fall in love. There were also dates when rosemary could be used for divination of future marriage partners. Derbyshire girls used to put a sprig of rosemary and a crooked sixpence under their pillows at Halloween, so that they should dream of their future husbands . Easter Saturday was also effective according to an 18th century chapbook – “If you lay a branch of rosemary under your head, on Easter Eve, you will dream of the party you shall enjoy”.

If you didn’t enjoy sleeping on rosemary you could place a plate of flour under a rosemary bush on midsummer’s eve, and your future husband’s initials would be written in it. Or according to James Haliwell in his Popular Rymes and Nursery Tales on St. Agnes’ day, you should “take a sprig of rosemary, and another of thyme, and sprinkle them thrice with water. In the evening put one in each shoe, placing a shoe on each side of the bed, and when you retire to rest, say the following lines, and your future husband will appear “visible to sight:

St. Agnes, that’s to lovers kind,
Come ease the trouble of my mind.”

Other’s believed that to see your true love in a dream one should put rosemary under your pillow and that no specific day was indicated. There was even Spanish Proverb that suggested that a dislike of rosemary was an indication of a reluctance to love. An 18th Century translation suggests that:

Who passeth by the rosemarie
And careth not to take a spraye
For woman’s love no care has he,
Nor shall he though he live for aye…

A slightly less romantic modern translation suggests that ‘Who goes through the rosemary and does not take from it, has neither had loves nor does he wish for them’

Also Good for Demons

Rosemary was also used for protection from demons and bad influences and if planted in the garden protected the house. Although you had to be careful with the size of the plant as to quote The Treasury of Botany:

“There is a vulgar belief in Gloucestershire and other counties, that Rosemary will not grow well unless where the mistress is ‘master’; and so touchy are some of the lords of creation upon this point, that we have more than once had reason to suspect them of privately injuring a growing rosemary in order to destroy this evidence of their want of authority.”

It was also used as a remedy against witchcraft: “A remedy for illness caused by witchcraft “used and prescribed by the cunning man was to put rosemary, balm and many gold flowers in a bagg to the patients brest as a charm and to give them inwardly a decoction made of the same in a quarrt of ale and their own blood.” (taken from a deposition to the Assizes, Leicester, 1717). In Spain a sprig of rosemary was worn to protect against witchcraft and in Portugal is was believed that bad atmosphere created by marital quarrels could be exorcised by burning rosemary in the house.

A Good Night’s Sleep

Rosemary placed under the pillow is suggested also as a cure for nightmares and promoting good sleep. Placing it beneath the bed is also said to protect the occupant from many varieties of harm. Burning rosemary in the house is said to purify a new home for its new occupants.

Rosemary is also associated with fairies particularly in Sicily where it believed that young fairies, disguised as snakes, lie hidden under its branches. It has also been reported that an old word for Rosemary in rural Portugal is Alecrim which comes from Ellegrim (a Scandinavian word) which signifies elfin plant. I haven’t checked this but it makes a charming story so I’ll leave it to you to research it or believe it.

Beer and Spoons

To move to more culinary matters, rosemary was said to reduce chronic drunkeness in Wales. It was often added to beer casks as infusion to assist with that. There was also the added benefit of keeping the beer from souring for longer. It was also widely believed that a spoon made from rosemary wood would make whatever was eaten from it nutritious.

When using rosemary in cooking, we associate rosemary now with more savoury dishes, particularly lamb where it is considered helpful to the liver for digesting such a fatty meat. It has also been proven to contain compounds which reduce any carcinogenic effects of cooking at high heat over wood and charcoal.

A Sweet History

Rosemary used to be used in sweet dishes too. Pamela Michael in All Good Things around Us describes some interesting sweet confections made with rosemary. These included a rosemary conserve, for which she found recipes from the 16th and 17th centuries and which is described as looking and tasting almost exactly like honey. Another is a kind of compote of oranges flavoured with rosemary.

For decorative and edible effects she suggests crystallised rosemary flowers (small and fiddly to work with, but very pretty) and also a medieval edible centrepiece called Rosemary Snow: ‘a large branch, or “bush”, of rosemary was decorated with whisked cream, egg white and sugar, usually set in a loaf of bread.

Paella Problems

It is also divisive as an ingredient of Paella, according to chefs in Valencia. It is used by half of those who are considered to make the real authentic dish. There is even a wonderfully named website where you can find those restaurants that make authentic paella by the set of rules established by the founders should you wish to follow that up – Wikipaella. I’m now considering a sort of pilgrimage to try the wonderful paellas and ask the restaurants the question for my own personal survey.

Although our original story is Spanish I wasn’t going to give you a recipe for Paella, its a Catalan story for a start not a Valencian one. Also I prefer to leave it the experts. I’m not expert in Spanish cooking so I thought you might prefer a recipe for a dish that I know works, as I’ve made it many times. It was given to me by a chef in an Italian restaurant that has sadly closed down so at least its from a mediterranean country. This recipe is for roasted potatoes with garlic and rosemary, wait, please come back. This is exactly like the perfect potatoes you get in little Italian trattorias. Its a lot of faff but worth it for every crispy, then melting bite of garlic and rosemary scented potatoes.

Garlic & Rosemary Crispy Melting Potatoes



Prep time


Cooking time



Crispy, melt in the middle rosemary garlic potatoes perfect with anything. Taste of a trattoria without leaving the house.


  • 900g Floury Potatoes like Maris Piper or King Edward (basically any potato thats good for roasting) peeled and cut into biggish chunks

  • Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper

  • 3 tbsp olive oil

  • 2 generous sprigs rosemary, leaves chopped

  • 1/2 bulb of garlic cloves unpeeled

  • 1 tbsp fine dried breadcrumbs


  • Preheat to the oven to 200 degrees C
  • Put potatoes in a large pan and cover with cold water, add salt & bring water to the boil and then boil for 2 minutes and then drain
  • Combine oil, rosemary and garlic in a large ovenproof pan that will hold the potatoes in one layer (If you don’t have one, just use a big frying pan and then tip into a roasting dish after you’ve done the next step)
  • Heat over a medium heat and add the potatoes and sauté them tossing frequently until they begin to brown. Season and sprinkle the potatoes with the breadcrumbs.
  • Transfer the pan to the oven (or tip into heated roasted dish) and roast for 25 minutes until they are brown and crunchy on the outside and melting in the middle. You can then fish out the garlic cloves and dish up. (I eat the garlic cloves out of the little skins but garlic is one of my great loves)
Further Reading

Pink Fairy Book – Andrew Lang
A Modern Herbal – Alys Fowler
A Modern Herbal Volume 1 &2 – Mrs M Grieve
Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics / Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore of the Plant Kingdom – Richard Folkard
Flora Domestica – Elizabeth Kent (1823)
Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales, A Sequel to the Nursery Rhymes of England – James Orchard Halliwell
Dictionary of Plant Lore, D.C. Watts
Folk-lore and folk-stories of Wales – Marie Trevelyan, 19101910
Plants For A Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles – Beth Trissel
Histoire Naturelle – Valmont Bomare
All Good Things around Us – Pamela Michael,
The Oxford Companion to Food – Alan Davidson
Gerard’s Herball Or, Generall Historie Of Plantes – John Gerard
Hesperides or the Works Both Human and Divine of Robert Herrick
Herbs in Magic and Achemy Techniques from Ancient Herbal Lore, CL Zalewski
The Wild & Weedy Apothecary: An A to Z Book of Herbal Concoctions, Recipes & Remedies, Practical Know-How & Food for the Soul – Doreen Shababy
Herbal Magick, A Witch’s Guide to Herbal Folklore and Enchantments – Gerina Dunwich
Garden Witch’s Herbal – Ellen Dugan

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