Fresh Italian basil is evocative of glorious Mediterranean summers. The glossy leaves have a distinctive scent and flavour that, for the cook, bring to mind visions of insalata Caprese (fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves) and pesto (basil pounded in a mortar or pureed with garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and parmesan cheese).
If you attempt to grow the plant, you'll find that, unfortunately, snails, aphids and other pests also love the smell and taste of basil.
When buying it - whether as a cut herb or potted plant - look for leaves that are strongly scented, because they have more flavour. The cut herb can be stored for several days in the fridge if you keep the stems moist by putting them in a glass of water or wrapping them in damp paper towels. The flavour starts to fade once the herb is cut, though, so use it as soon as possible. Basil is usually added to a dish at the last minute because heat destroys the taste.
Unlike herbs such as oregano, rosemary, thyme and bay leaves, basil loses most of its flavour when it's dried. If you want the taste of summer after the basil season ends, puree the herb with some olive oil, pack it into small jars and store in the freezer. You can also grow basil indoors; the plant dies when it gets too cold, although that's not really a problem in Hong Kong. To encourage bushier growth, pinch off the flowers and upper leaves at the stem.