This is Sweet Marjoram plant growing in a self-watering planter box on my balcony. I particularly like to use this herb to make PESTO DI NOCI (Walnut Pesto).

This is my Oregano plant in the same planter box and although it is difficult to see the differences in the photo (below), the Oregano is much darker, and the leaves are larger and firmer. The Sweet Marjoram leaves are softer, smaller and a lighter green. Both herbs are so similar, it is understandable that the two are often mistaken for each other.

Sweet Marjoram is difficult to find in plant nurseries and nurseries often label and sell Golden Oregano as Marjoram causing confusion with buyers.

Golden Oregano has golden chartreuse coloured foliage and is an attractive plant. It is a version of standard Oregano, but it does not taste anything like Sweet Marjoram. Because of its attractive colouring it is a popular plant in a flower garden. Many people use it in cooking, but to me it tastes grassy.

The confusion could be that Marjoram and Oregano are species of the genus Origanum. They are both fragrant with velvety, green leaves and are frequently used in Mediterranean dishes. Origanum, the dark Oregano, has been cultivated for thousands of years, including by both the ancient Romans and Greeks. So it is understandable it is now very common in Italian and Greek Cuisine.

There is a big difference in the taste of Sweet Marjoram and the Oregano plants and Marjoram is not called sweet for nothing. The herb has a milder flavour and a stronger scent. It’s warm and only slightly sharp.

Similarities between Marjoram and Oregano have caused identification problems and confusion for centuries. To avoid confusion with Oregano and Golden Oregano that is also labelled as Marjoram, true Sweet Marjoram should always be referred to as Knotted or Sweet Marjoram.

In Italian Marjoram is called Maggiorana and Oregano is Origano. There is no confusion.

Marjoram has a lot of different uses; it can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. I associate Marjoram with German cuisine, some French and some northern Italian. Having said this, one of my Sicilian aunts used it when making ricotta ravioli. It is most often associated with meat stuffing, meatloaf or sausages. I mainly use it when cooking white meat (chicken, pork and fish) to complement delicate flavours, simply braised vegetables and especially in dishes where I use nuts. I also like it in tomato-based sauces, it has a lighter taste than Oregano, and in tomato salads and in salads containing fruit.

Sweet Marjoram is also used in sweet dishes – especially in custards and fruit-based desserts. I use Sweet Marjoram when it is not likely to be overpowered by other flavours; say, with apple desserts and sometimes when using nuts. Most often, when I have used herbs in desserts, Think ‘pleasurable’ tastes, especially when topped with a spoonful of ricotta as a topping; it adds more sweetness and delicacy.

I have generally favoured Lemon Verbena, Lemon Balm, Lavender and Rose Scented Geraniums in custards and Thyme and Basil when making Granita. I shall need to experiment further.

My favourite dish using Sweet Marjoram is in Ligurian Pesto made with walnuts – PESTO DI NOCI.

These are the ingredients to begin with: Sweet Marjoram and parsley, walnuts, extra virgin olive oil and garlic. I made these amounts for 2 people to dress a short-shaped pasta. The bit left over I used to dress cooked green beans.

When I am making larger quantities, I use my larger food processor. I have included a link to a much older post at the end of this one that includes quantities and more detail.

Chop the nuts, add the herbs and garlic. You can see a cup of extra virgin olive oil on the side. Add this gradually and blend it till you have a creamy consistency. I like to taste and feel ‘bits’ in pesto, so I never blend it till it is totally smooth.

I also add nutmeg (complements the taste of nuts and contributes to delicate, sweet tastes), and a little salt and pepper.

And there it is. It is ready to use to dress the pasta. Top it with a generous spoonful of fresh ricotta.

A note about ricotta. The one sold in a small tub does not taste anything like ricotta should taste. Ricotta is sold in Delis in 2-3k rounds. It should be creamy and freshly made. Fresh ricotta spoils in a few days!

On occasions I have added butter and cream to the pesto, especially when I do not have fresh ricotta at home.

Top with some extra virgin olive oil if you intend to store the pesto in the fridge (safely for a couple of weeks) or in the freezer for a longer time.

 It is portable and this jar came in handy on my last camping trip.

RECIPE, story and quantities:

PESTO DI NOCI (Walnut pesto/ sauce for pasta)