When Milan-based journalist Evangelia Koutsovoulou would take trips home to Greece, about five years ago, she always brought back local oregano and other dried herbs on the return trip. An Italian friend of hers was astounded by their aroma and taste—incomparable to the pulverized, bland herbs available in the local markets. Hearing this from someone who grew up in a colder climate, say Sweden or Canada, would have come as no surprise to Evangelia. But her friend was a real born-and-bred Italian. Italy! Land of storied, revered cuisine!
Enter lightbulb. Seven years later, in 2013, Evangelia founded Daphnis and Chloe to share these unparalleled dried cooking herbs and spices with a wider audience—and just last week we launched two sets of their dried herbs in the Food52 Shop.
I spoke with Evangelia over the phone to bring you the story behind Daphnis and Chloe, including why their herbs are different and how they're sourced, so read on to hear a little bit more about that.
And if the story of her Italian friend has already won you over, shop Daphnis & Chloe herbs here and skip right on down and read about how to cook with them. (You can imagine why cooking with high quality herbs matters!)
Evangelia began to dig (her previous job as a journalist coming in handy here) to determine whether the idea to start an herb company had legs. How would she source the herbs? What helps herbs preserve their aroma and flavor? How could they be transported?
She first approached a friend and researcher at the University of Athens who specializes in plants, and later connected with a group of researchers who were mapping different varieties of herbs. From there, she told me, “it was a discovery!” and she began looking high and low and all across Greece for the people who make farming herbs their life's work.
Sometimes, she made connections by conventional means: getting in touch with a certification organization who might have data about producers focusing on specific plants.
Other times, her approach was a little more roundabout: In one instance, she called up a local bar to see if they knew anyone nearby who grew a particular variety of herb she wanted to find, and they were able to put her in touch with a farmer (no word on if she stopped in for a drink, too). There were many “field trips” to all corners of Greece (some involving traffic jams with sheep, Evangelia says).
Yes, this sort of thing sounds deeply romantic, cinematic even—but really, it’s a testament to the time, attention, and passion that went into Daphnis and Chloe.
Not all herbs are created equally. Whereas high quality pasta, olive oil, and exotic spices are readily available around the globe, dried herbs are another story. "Even in the Mediterranean," Evangelia said, "good dried herbs are hard to find." Daphnis and Chloe seeks to change that, with an approach that is hands on—something more akin to winemaking.
Very often the herbs you find in grocery stores are single varietals produced on a very large scale that have been developed in a way that guarantees consistency. But this homogenization strips the herbs of any sort of character they might have had. Just as a wine is affected by its terroir (where it’s grown, the weather at that time, the climate of the particular region), herbs can vary wildly region to region. And each year’s harvest is different from the next.
Meaning each container of herbs should be different from the next—this being what makes cooking with them exciting and ever-changing.
Daphnis & Chloe’s herbs are sourced from all over Greece, and in each package you'll experience the terroir of many different places. The same variety of an herb may grow in both the Peloponnese in southern Greece and on an island in the Cyclades. “But you taste them, and even if you are not a specialist you can easily recognize that there are differences," Evangelia tells me. "What we aim for is this variation!”
Dried herbs can have a very strong essence when handled properly: Evangelia says that the chefs she sells to have all commented on how powerful, fragrant, and robust her herbs are—so powerful that they end up using half of what they normally would in their cooking. So even though you might be paying more than what you'd pay in the grocery store, Daphnis & Chloe's herbs will go a much longer way.
“We understood very early in the process that if we want to keep this amazing quality [of the herbs] until the moment you’re in your kitchen—in order to keep the freshness and aroma—we had to keep the plant in as big of pieces as possible," Evangelia explains. That's why they don't come ground; the secret to the powerful freshness of Daphnis & Chloe’s is that they're whole.
Grinding herbs releases their essential oils and oxidizes them—their flavor disappears quickly if not used right away.
And this isn’t easy to do. Powdered, pulverized herbs can run through a machine and be ground and bottled in minutes. Whereas all of the harvesting and packing of Daphnis and Chloe herbs is done by hand, then transported, very delicately, to Athens where they're packaged and shipped out (to you!).
The actual process of drying the spices—”it’s an art,” Evangelia says—must take place close the fields. The most important step in keeping an herb's aroma and flavor is harvesting it at just the right time, in each herb’s ideal stage for drying.
The farmers at Daphnis & Chloe dry the herbs in several different ways: some do completely natural drying, allowing the herbs to wither at their own pace. Herbs with a high water content, such as mint, preserve their oils better when dried with some help—left in a drying room with a machine that pumps a warm wind onto the herbs, speeding up their drying process.
Once an herb is dried, its concentrated essential oils remain.
“We are used to thinking of herbs as grated and [ground] little leaves—it's like powder!," Evangelia says. "For transportation, for storage, this is practical.” But it sacrifices the quality of the herb, and its impact on your cooking.
Evangelia compared whole dried herbs to coffee beans. Let’s say you buy a bag of whole coffee beans and decide to grind the whole bag the first day you get it. You brew coffee the first day and the flavor is robust, aromatic, deep. You brew a cup from the grinds 2 weeks later, and the coffee has lost much of its luster. Grinding herbs (or coffee beans) releases their essential oils and oxidizes them—their flavor disappears quickly if not used right away.
Evangelia debunked an assumption I’ve heard many express (possibly myself included): 'I will only use [dried herbs] if I don’t have fresh!’
There are different uses for different ingredients in their different states. One thing doesn’t really substitute the other. It really depends on what you want to do, what you want to cook.
The cardinal sin: “I would never suggest anyone to use dried parsley. It's always best fresh."
I asked Evangelia if dried herbs ever go bad—she said no. But they do lose intensity. If you keep your herbs away from the sun, in an airtight jar in a dry spot, their flavor will last for roughly a year, which varies from herb to herb. Evangelia does a clean out of cupboards once a year, tastes her herbs and spices, and replaces what needs to be replaced.
Evangelia cooks simply, allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. "I’m very much influenced by the traditional cooking of Greece. It is a rural way of cooking. Made with very few ingredients." She grind her spices with a mortar and pestle, or even by hand. In the winter, she'll make a vinaigrette using dried thyme, lemon, and olive oil, that she tosses with roasted or boiled vegetables. If she wants a bolder take, she'll incorporate chili flakes or dried oregano.
She's insistent upon using a dried bay leaf in both bean soups and a ragu sauce (she'd never use fresh, the oils aren't concentrated enough). To generalize, she said she uses dried spices when things are actually cooking, on the stovetop or in the oven. When she's preparing salads, she opts for fresh herbs, like parsley.
Daphnis and Chloe's Mediterranean Basics Set, in our Shop, comes with one jar each of bay leaves, thyme flowers, oregano, and sage leaves. We're also carrying their Herbs to Drink Set, which has two types of mint, fennel seeds, and sage leaves for concocting your own tea and cocktail blends!
As with all cooking, it's about personal taste. Taste being the key word here. As you cook with these dried herbs, rubbing them between your fingertips, letting the aromas release and the oil-rich pieces rain down on your dishes, you'll experiment with how much you like to add in your rubs for a roast, whether you prefer dried oregano to fresh in your pasta sauces, and what herb combinations tickle your fancy.
What are your favorite ways to use dried herbs? Or are you a dried herb hater? Spill in the comments below.