A little bit of spice

Spices have been with us for many, many years (if not decades) and are used in a variety of dishes to add flavour and/or colour. Spices are known for their aroma and health benefits. So, in today’s blog post, I am going to look at a few of these spices.

Allspice: an interesting name for an interesting spice. It looks like pepper but it tastes like a mixture of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Although it is called allspice, it is just a single spice and not a compound of spices. It is used in both sweet and savoury dishes, as it adds a lovely warmth to the dish. My granny used allspice in biscuits and until today, it still remains one of my favourite recipes! Allspice is not only used in baking and cooking, but also in herbal medicine and cosmetics (more on this a bit later).

Allspice is native to Central and South America, as well as the West Indies. It flourishes in Jamaica and, thanks to Columbus, the reddish-brown berries made its way to Europe. The Allspice-tree is an evergreen tree that bears fruit after 6 years or so. Its berries are picked when they are still green but mature, then dried for about 10 days in the sun, until a reddish-brown colour appears. In cooking it can be used in dried fruit cakes, fruit crumble toppings and biscuits. It can also be added to pickled vegetables, chutneys and relishes. Allspice can also be added to red meat marinades and casseroles. Overseas it is added to Scandinavian pickled herring, in Jamaica and the West Indies it is used in stews, soups and curries, and in India allspice is added to curries and pilau rice.

For health purposes, allspice is used in ointment for its anaesthetic properties; the oil from the crushed berries is used in medicines to alleviate indigestion and upset stomachs. It is also known to help with headaches and toothaches. When a plaster / paste is made from the crushed berries it is used to relieve rheumatism- and neuralgia pain. In aromatherapy allspice is used to treat many ailments, for example arthritis, chills, coughs, cramps, depression, fatigue, stiffness and stress.
In cosmetics allspice essential oil is a common ingredient in spice-based perfumes and soaps for men; and also added to potpourri, together with cinnamon, for an extra spiciness-hint.

Ginger: who doesn’t love ginger? Whether it is in a drink or in biscuits, ginger has been around for years! It originated in Southeast Asia and was introduced to Europe before the Roman times. It is easy to transport because its roots stay fresh for a considerable time, thus it could be shipped by the Spanish, Portuguese and Arabs between various tropical countries, and Europe, from the 13th to the 18th century. In medieval times it was used as a flavouring and for medicinal purposes; it was commonly used to treat the plague! In today’s modern world ginger is cultivated all over the world and used in food and as medicine.

There are a number of variations of ginger, for example ‘green’ ginger (rhizome), is best used in curries and savoury dishes. Dried ginger is used in pickling, in a powered form it is used in cakes and biscuits, and as ‘stem’ ginger, it can be preserved in syrup to add to sweet dishes. A lovely sweet (candy) is crystallized ginger; either eaten on its own or used in biscuits and sweets. There are also ginger tea, ginger oil, ginger wine and Japanese pickled ginger on the market today, catering for a wide variety of taste-buds. Lastly, if you prefer to use fresh ginger and would like it to stay fresh for longer, then simply peel any left-over pieces, put it into a jar and add dry sherry. Keep it in the fridge and there you go! Your ginger’s life is prolonged with another 2 – 3 weeks. Bonus is, the ginger-flavoured sherry is a lovely addition to stir-fries and to marinade chicken and pork.

For medicinal / health purposes, ginger has been used extensively by the Chinese to help dysentery, toothache, rheumatism, malaria, nausea and to soothe a cold. It can also be used as a laxative (so be careful not to drink too much ginger tea)! As an essential oil ginger is used in aromatherapy to treat poor circulation, muscular pains arthritis and rheumatism.

In cosmetics ginger is used in the more exotic, spicy fragrances; typically of the East and Asia.

Mace and Nutmeg: these 2 spices come from the same fruit tree, that is native to the Spice (Moluccas) Islands, in Southeast Asia. The fruit reminds one of an apricot, but when it is ripe, it splits to reveal a walnut-sized seed. The orange, lacy strips covering the seed are the mace. Inside its shell is the seed – the nutmeg.

The Arabs and Indians used it for digestive, liver and skin problems, as well as believed that it had aphrodisiac qualities as well. Nutmeg only became popular from the 16th century, when the Portuguese traded with it and started using it in the kitchen. Then the Dutch started trading with it and using it, and today it is used in many Dutch recipes.

Both spices have got the same smell, but mace is much stronger and slightly bitter than nutmeg; use it, in moderation, in savoury dishes. Nutmeg, on the other hand, is used in sweet dishes, biscuits and milky puddings (deserts). Here are a few more ideas where you can add either mace or nutmeg:
Mace – add it to a white sauce, to flavour fish, terrines and pâté; use in soups and casseroles; flavouring cheese and egg dishes; add them to your home-made pickles / chutneys to keep the liquid from clouding.
Nutmeg – add it to milk-based sauces, custard and puddings; add flavour to spinach, cauliflower, potato and white cabbage; add to cakes, tea breads, muffins and biscuits.

In next week’s blog I will share a few easy-to-follow recipes, where you can use some / all of the above spices. Until then!

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