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Oregano

My name is Al Goetze, and I’m the chief spice buyer at McCormick. Together, my team and I have more than 100 years of spice-buying experience. We spend the bulk of our time scouring more than 30 countries worldwide in search of the finest quality herbs and spices. We visit some of the most remote and interesting places in the world.

The key to our team’s success is that we oversee each step of the process –- farming, harvesting, drying, collecting, cleaning and shipping –- to ensure that we provide premium quality herbs and spices. We work directly with the suppliers to maintain their reliability and share the latest technology. There are many factors that influence the crops we monitor daily. Cyclones, droughts, high temperatures and flooding can adversely affect crops. Political unrest is also a concern, as it can disrupt the local supply chain.

Throughout this year, we’re excited to give you and your readers a behind the scenes look at our travel journals. You’ll get the inside scoop on some of our favorite herbs and spices, and a unique snapshot of the growth, harvest and history of how they arrive on your table.

Let’s begin by taking a look at oregano. The harvest was completed a couple of months ago, and the pick of the latest crop will soon arrive on your grocer’s shelves. This year’s harvest was plentiful, predominantly due to favorable weather conditions. We selected both Mediterranean (Turkish) and Mexican oregano – the most popular varieties of the herb. Each has a distinctly different flavor, with Mediterranean being the more familiar favorite found in pizza, pasta sauces and Italian dishes. Both types can flavor a variety of foods -- Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and more -- yet few people stop to think where oregano comes from or how it became so indispensable to our favorite meals.

Our journey commences near the Aegean Sea, where oregano has grown in the wild for thousands of years. Here, the plant, whose name is derived from the Greek, “oros ganos” (joy of the mountain), is grown among the rocks –- literally in the mountains or hill country -- often far away from towns and villages. Mediterranean oregano gained popularity in the United States after the troops who were stationed in Italy returned home from World War II. It is strongly aromatic and somewhat bitter with a slight mint-like essence.

Mediterranean oregano is a small plant, Origanum vulgare , which grows to about two to three feet tall. The herb flourishes during the rainy season, which typically begins in March and lasts through the spring. In June and July, the oregano is hand harvested and sun dried. This drying process usually takes place in the backyards of the villagers who harvest the plant.

Because harvesting is such a painstaking process -- trekking out to the hills and hand-cutting the plants -- some villagers have created “short cuts” to help stretch the volume of their harvest. They may try to add similar looking green plant material into the bags they bring to market. To offset this issue, my team and I have developed a stringent set of standards and tests to ensure that the oregano we sell is 100% pure.

Next stop - Mexico, the undeveloped, mountainous countryside - to inspect the crop there. Mexican oregano, Lippia graveolens or Lippia berlandieri, has a stronger, more robust and less mint-like flavor than Mediterranean oregano. This is because it is a different species. In fact, the plant even looks completely different from its Mediterranean cousin. The Mexican oregano plant resembles a four to six-foot tall bush, with leaves that curl up when dried. Because of this key characteristic, many spice traders refer to Mexican oregano as “curly leaf oregano.” It is commonly found in chili powder and its flavor is best suited to authentic Mexican foods such as sauces, meat and bean dishes, and chili.

Mexican oregano grows similar to that of Mediterranean oregano - in the wild during the spring and throughout the rainy season. It has a slightly longer growing season than Mediterranean oregano, and is traditionally harvested during the months of August, September and October.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this season’s journey, and look forward to bringing you more spice buyers’ journals during the year.