HISTORICAL HINTS: Myrtle is a very ancient plant, and different proofs can be found. According to the legend, the name myrtus would come from the name of Myrsine, a girl from Attica, which was invincible in gymnastic challenges and that, after having defeated a boy, was murdered by that boy’s friend who was mad with envy. Moved by pity, the goddess Pallas transformed her lifeless body in a beautiful shrub named after the girl, Myrsine which we call now myrtle. In Greek mythology myrtle was considered a symbol of love and beauty since it was considered sacred by the goddess Venus: according to the tradition, when the naked goddess came out of the sea, she took refuge behind a myrtle bush, to hide from the lustful sight of a satyr. Bloomed branches of myrtle were used to decorate houses during weddings and to award poets during literary events. For Romans myrtle was, together with bay leaf, a symbol of peace and victory: Generals which won battles, as poets, were awarded by the Senate with a myrtle crown. In the middle age, a special essence called “angelic water” was extracted from the plant and used in the perfume industry, while mature berries were used to produce inks and natural colours.
THE PLANT - Myrtle (Myrtus Communis L.) is an evergreen plant belonging to the Myrtaceae family, which includes about 100 genus and 3000 species spread in temperate, tropical and subtropical regions. It is a non-thorny shrub with a bush shape, reaching easily 2 m of height. Its leaves are coriaceous, persistent, with a bright green colour and with an oval shape. When broken, these leaves have a pleasant fragrance similar to orange, which is due to the presence of myrtol, an oil with balsamic properties. Myrtle flowers are white, blooms from June to September and have visible golden stems; flowers are solitary, light looking, with a simple shape and very perfumed. Fruits, maturing in autumn, are small egg-shaped black-purplish berries with a fleshy consistency and 1 cm of diameter. In Sardinia region the myrtle is a liqueur which is offered or ordered in every restaurant at the end of the meal and in many houses the liqueur is still handmade.
CULTIVATION, VARIETY AND HARVESTING - Myrtle is widespread in all the southern Europe, especially in Greece, Italy, Spain and in Mediterranean France: it is possible to find it also in south-western British earldom and even in Ireland. In Italy, it is very common in Sardinia where it grows spontaneously together with other essences as juniper, arbutus, etc. Myrtle is the only component of Myrtaceae to be present in Europe, while other exemplaries are widespread in Australia and in tropical regions. Flowers can be picked when they blossom in July-August; leaves last all the year long. Berries mature from the end of November to January. Harvesting should be handmade since no machinery or mechanic tool is capable to pick berries without damage the shrub. To harvest a big comb is passed with extreme care, along the branches: mature berries come off and fall on sheets which are placed at the base of the plant, while leaves do not undergo any damage.
PRESERVATION - After sun drying, flowers, leaves and berries are stored in hermetic boxes.
PROPERTIES - Medicinal properties of myrtle were known since the Roman period which used it to cure: leucorrhoea, ulcer, dermatitis, haemorrhoids, urinary and airways affections. According to the popular medicine, myrtle would have curative properties for cystitis, genitourinary problems, as nervous and stomachic sedative: its fruits have a carminative astringent, aromatic, tonic effect. Myrtle leaves can be used to prepare infusion to cleanse the skin and external mucose and as a strengthener of the scalp. Myrtle essential oil has antiseptic and balsamic properties and it is suitable to cure airways affections, beside, it is an aromatic component of perfumes. Myrtol is present in cough syrup formulation. In autumn, myrtle berries are easy to find in marketplaces because they are used to be macerated for handmade liqueur production, while myrtle branches are common to be used as decorations for butcher and rotisserie counters. In Sardinia region, myrtle liqueur is the main digestive and it is offered at the end of each meal: over 2 million bottles of myrtle liqueur are produced every year by dozens of producers, some of which have managed to obtain the Product Certification of “Liquore Mirto di Sardegna Tradizionale”.
CULINARY USE - Myrtle is generally not used fresh, while leaves and berries are common to season meat dishes (the very well known myrtle roasted pig) fish, and salamis. In Lazio region myrtle is used to prepare roman “mortatum”, myrtle sausages. In Sardinia region berries are commonly and widely used in industrial transformation for the production of liqueurs, wines, jams and sweets. This berry is also very good to obtain infusions, placing few leaves in the tea pot together with the usual tea bag. Myrtle can be white or red, the first being produced in fewer quantities than the red, but both of them are used to produce myrtle liqueur obtained through alcoholic infusion.