If basil is the defining herb of the Spanish Mediterranean, oregano is the defining herb of the Italian Mediterranean, celebrated in that unique and wonderful dish, pizza.
Golden oregano plants
Probably the Mediterranean.
Several species of genus origanum are native to the Mediterranean and all are traded as spices. The most important species of oregano are o. vulgare (pan-European), o. onites (Greece, Asia Minor) and o. heracleoticum (Italy, the Balkans, Western Asia).
Leaves. The dried herb is often more flavourful than the fresh, similar to thyme.
Lamiaceae (mint family).
Aromatic, warm and slightly bitter with an intensity that varies greatly. The good quality is so strong that it almost numbs the tongue but the cultivars adapted to colder climates are often of unsatisfactory flavour.
Greek origanon may derive from oros "mountain" and ganousthai "delight in" because oregano prefers higher altitudes in the Mediterranean climate. Some Scandinavian names also contain a similar element, e.g. Norwegian bergmynte "mountain mint" and Finnish mäkimeirami "hill marjoram". Confusingly, the herb rosemary bears names with the element "mountain" in both Arabic and Farsi. Names for oregano in the great majority of European languages are similar or identical. The spice is named "oregano" in English, German, Danish, Polish and Hebrew and minor spelling modification occurs in other languages, e.g. Czech oregáno, Spanish orégano, Icelandic oreganó, Italian origano, Catalan orenga and Portuguese orégão.
Only in a few languages is the name significantly changed, as in Maltese riegnu and Greek rigani (loaned to Albanian rigon and Bulgarian rigan). Many tongues name oregano "wild marjoram", e.g. German wilder majoran, Swedish vild mejram, Hungarian vadmajoránna, Polish dziki majeranek and French marjolaine sauvage "wild marjoram" and marjolaine bâtarde "bastard marjoram". This is botanically incorrect, because oregano and marjoram are closely related but the former is not the wild form of the latter.
In many Eastern Mediterranean countries no clear distinction is made between aromatic herbs of the mint family. Names such as Turkish kekik and Arabic zatar/satar, often in conjunction with qualifying adjectives, are applied to a variety of herbs including oregano, marjoram, thyme and savory. In Jordan, zahtar usually means a spice mixture containing such herbs. Usage may vary even within a given language, depending on region and on local flora.
Species name vulgare is Latin for "common".
Oregano is a condicio sine qua non in Italian cuisine where it is used for tomato sauces, fried vegetables and grilled meat. Together with basil, it symbolises the character of Italian dishes. The dish most associated with oregano is pizza, a bread dough topped with tasty foodstuffs and baked. Bread of this kind has been eaten in Southern Italy for centuries and, according to legend, pizza came into existence in 1889 when King Umberto and his wife Margherita sojourned in Napoli. The fable tells that, to honour the Queen, a local baker devised a new kind of pizza in which white mozzarella cheese and green basil leaves were added to the normal red tomato topping, reflecting the colours of the Italian flag.
The invention became known as pizza Margherita and spread across Italy and eventually across the rest of the world.
Oregano can be effectively combined with pickled olives and capers or lovage leaves. Unlike other Italian herbs, oregano harmonises with hot and spicy food, as popular in Southern Italy. The cuisines of other Mediterranean countries make less use of oregano, but it is of some importance for Spanish, French and Greek cooking. Outside the Mediterranean region oregano is hardly used except, of course, by Italian immigrants.