Marjoram is found in many herb mixtures and is the classic herb for flavouring sausages. It's a really pleasant surprise when you use the fresh herb for the first time after having used dried marjoram for years.
Marjoram originates in Asia Minor and is popularly cultivated in Mediterranean countries, Central and Eastern Europe. The best qualities require a hot climate.
Lamiaceae (mint family).
Aromatic and slightly bitter. Although botanically related to oregano, it does not bear much olfactory resemblance to this relative.
Marjoram was called amaracum in Latin, which in turn was taken from Greek amarakos. The origin of the Greek name is unknown, but it may be further East as indicated by the Sanskrit name maruva. The plant's reputation as an aphrodisiac in Roman literature may be due to the similarity of amaracum to the linguistically unrelated Latin amor "love".
The names in most modern European languages derive from amaracum and have been additionally influenced by the Latin maior "greater", via folk etymology. Examples include Norwegian merian, French marjolaine and Italian maggiorana.
The species name hortensis derives from the Latin word for "garden". In many Eastern Mediterranean countries no clear distinction is made between marjoram and other aromatic herbs of the mint family.
The Turkish kekik, Arabic zatar and related terms in Hebrew and Iranian apply to a variety of native herbs including marjoram along with oregano, thyme and savory. Usage may vary even within a given language, depending on the region and on the local flora. In Jordan, zahtar means a spice mix containing such herbs.
Marjoram is similar to tarragon, although botanically unrelated, in being a spice that needs a warm climate to develop its aroma but which loses some fragrance when dried. Despite these deficiencies, it is a well-established culinary herb across Central Europe.
Dried marjoram is extremely important in industrial food processing and is much used (with thyme) in spice mixtures for the production of sausages. In Germany, where several such herb sausages are produced, the plant is called wurstkraut "sausage herb". The addition of marjoram to boiled or fried liver is a classic.
Marjoram may be effectively combined with bay leaves and goes well with small amounts of black pepper or juniper. Combinations of the last type are well suited to ragouts, particularly venison ragout. Marjoram also has a place in vegetable dishes and works well with heavy vegetables such as legumes or cabbage. Fried potato spiced with liberal amounts of marjoram is delicious.
Fresh marjoram is more popular in Southern European cuisines due to the warm climate. Fresh marjoram adds new accents to the French fines herbes and is frequently suggested for delicate fish dishes, to which it should be added shortly before serving. Only in less subtly flavoured dishes, such as Italian tomato sauces spiced with garlic, can fresh marjoram be successfully replaced by oregano. Fresh marjoram is well suited for the French bouquet garni.
In Western Asia, particularly in Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, a local related species majorana syriaca is a common flavouring for grilled mutton and is also used to flavour bread. Known as zahtar, it is more aromatic than the European variant. In Jordan, zahtar is used to prepare a spice mixture known by the same name and a similar zahtar blend is also a popular spice mixture in Israel. If unavailable, the Western Asian marjoram is best substituted by a mild type of thyme rather than by European "sweet" marjoram.
Marjoram is also popular further North in the Caucasus. The cuisine of Georgia is particularly known for its subtle blends of herbs and for its pleasantly fruity, acidic-sweet, spiced sauces. Herbs are usually employed in form of khmeli-suneli "dried herbs".
The mixture contains marjoram, savory, dill and basil plus a small amounts of black pepper and saffron. Optional herbs are parsley, mint and coriander. Khmeli-suneli is used for various Georgian meat and vegetable stews and for the many sauces for which Georgian cuisine is so famous. Best known in the West is tkemali sauce made from the local wild variety prunus cerasifera, prepared by boiling and pureeing the fruits.