Information on Cilician Parsley

Louisville, KY

I thought some of you might find this of interest.

Cilician Parsley—The Story of a Lost Cuisine
Plants & Gardens News Volume 17, Number 1 | Spring 2002

by William Woys Weaver

Cilician parsley
At first glance, Cilician parsley is easily recognizable as parsley. Yet it is different, clearly different, in its delicate leaf—so suggestive of a maidenhair fern. The aroma of the bruised leaves is intense, even sweet; the fragrance is almost overwhelming. This is a plant that prefers shady glens or moist locations exposed only to the early-morning sun. It is not like the robust flat-leafed variety of Italy (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum), which often waxes bitter in the baking Mediterranean sun. This is a woodsy plant, a delicate ingredient in the cookery of a bygone age when piquant green sauces reigned supreme on the tables of medieval kings, and when parsley was first among all other green vegetables, not the afterthought garnish it has evolved into today.

The medieval context is important. Picture, if you will, a dainty Yuan Dynasty celedon bowl brimming with rich, fragrant green puree, a sauce verte, food for knights, still hot from a nearby brazier. A genteel hand, delicately poised, spears a small grilled pheasant sausage with a finely wrought two-tined fork, dusts the meat with poudre d'ermenesque (ground cumin and fenugreek), then plunges it into the sauce. The very act of disturbing the puree releases aromas redolent of the golden sweet wine used to temper it. What heavenly sauce is so intense that its aroma still rises above the musty pages of history long forgotten? A sauce composed of Cilician parsley.

As philosophers through the ages have reminded us over and over, it is the small things that survive longest. Cilician parsley is a living embodiment of this aphorism, for it is a direct lineal descendant of a lost kingdom, of a forgotten cuisine, of a taste-memory that lives on in the hearts of a people long since dispersed from the setting where my imaginary meal took place. Not surprisingly, the plot to this story is also somewhat convoluted.

Cilicia was a tiny medieval kingdom on the coast of Armenia. It existed from 1198 until 1375 and was a vassal state of both the Holy Roman Empire and of Rome. But the Cilician parsley I grow did not come to me from Armenia. In fact, the parsley has not been cultivated there for a very long time. The path of its arrival to my Pennsylvania garden is much more roundabout. The original seed was brought to the United States in 1965 by a Cypriot from Kyreneia (northern Cyprus), who settled in the Greek community in Astoria, New York. Since then, the parsley has been grown in gardens in and around Astoria as a cherished reminder of the homeland and of a rich culinary heritage blending many strands drawn from the eastern Mediterranean.

The Cypriot obtained his seed from a relative in Templos, a village established in the Middle Ages near Kyreneia by the Templars (and from whom the feudal village took its name). In the early 1300s, the village passed to the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. A choice estate, Templos became one of the important commanderies of the order, and as such, a center of intensive and highly innovative agricultural activity. The Order of St. John, which owned properties and hospices (auberges) all over medieval Europe, was responsible for introducing many Near Eastern foods into European gardens, among them eggplants, spinach, romaine lettuces, and cauliflower (the "Cypriot cabbage" of old).

Finding Seed
At the moment, Cilician parsley is not available from any commercial outlet. The best way for gardeners to get hold of seed is through seed-saving organizations like Seed Savers Exchange (3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101; 319-382-5990). Mary Burns at Heirloom Gardens (13889 Dupree Worthey Rd., Harvest, AL 35749; 256-233-4422) is growing the plant and should have seed for sale by the end of this summer.

Templos also faces the sea. On the opposite coast lies Asia Minor and more specifically, Cilicia. Culturally and politically, Cilicia was intermeshed with the kingdom of Cyprus, with which it shared the greatest portion of its commerce. This commerce, as well as intermarriage between Cilician and Cypriot nobles, provides a historical backdrop for Cilician parsley and offers a possible explanation of how it happened to end up on Cypriot soil. It is well documented that Cilician grapes were planted in Cypriot vineyards, so an exchange of other plants is entirely plausible.

Though the parsley could have arrived in Cyprus at a much earlier or even a much later time, in oral tradition it has always been associated with the golden age of aristocratic cookery (both Cypriot and Armenian) and highly prized for its refined taste. Oral history, of course, offers no firm evidence of a connection, yet here it is supported to a degree by the fact that the genetic origin of all parsley is now thought to be that very same region of Asia Minor once occupied by the Cilician kingdom.

Cilician parsley has one more journey to make—toward a precise scientific nomenclature. Taxonomically speaking, we have yet to determine, probably through molecular analysis, whether the plant is a landrace (an ancient cultivar), a subspecies (a population that evolved in the wild), or something else. For now it's certainly safe to call it just Petroselinum crispum, but I prefer to use the common name, with its wonderful Old World resonance.

The region formerly known as Cilicia has seen many man-made upheavals over time. Today it is a haunting landscape dotted with ruined castles, churches, and manor houses, a silent testimony to the Greek, Armenian, and Syrian gardeners who centuries ago filled that once-rich land with opulent produce. If the term "heirloom vegetable" were ever in need of a concrete example, there is no better one than Cilician parsley, a tenacious survivor with a flavor that recalls a lost civilization and an ancient cuisine.

William Woys Weaver is a food historian, author, and contributing editor of Gourmet Magazine. His many books include Heirloom Vegetable Gardening and 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From.

Hughesville, MO(Zone 5a)

WOW! I put it in my favorites until I get new ink cartriges for the printer. Such a wealth of information. I'll have see if I can aquire some seeds this spring and raise a pot or two of this fabulous sounding herb. Thanks so much for sharing this with us here on Dave's Garden. GOD bless you.

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