Where would the world be without spice? That pinch of fairy dust that transforms the simplest dish into something other, heightening our senses with their exotic aromas, and adding a glorious depth of colour and flavour to our cooking. From seed and bark and bud and berry, spices are wisps of volatile oils that were once craved by kings, endowed with the glamour of opulence and blessed with the belief in their powers to ensure good health and enhance virility.
The history of exploration and colonization in the modern world is written in the kitchen spice rack: from black pepper, saffron and salt, to cinnamon, cloves and coriander. Traders and explorers were sent scuttling round the globe to claim not only these fragrant exotica but, on behalf of their rulers, the countries from whence they came. Rare and expensive, spices wove an alluring tale of privilege, power, romance and adventure, and often became a currency as precious as gold or silver. The Chinese even believed that cinnamon conferred immortality. With such a reputation, is it any wonder that the lust for spice became insatiable? Arabs, Romans, Vikings, Venetians, Turks, Spaniards, Dutch and English – every major civilization supported and spread its dominions through the Spice Trade, which drove the world economy from the end of the Middle Ages until the end of the nineteenth century.
The Arabs, strategically placed beside the sea link between east and west, monopolized trading for centuries. The Romans, with a keen appetite for spices and other outlandish ingredients, briefly elbowed their way into the business and sailed down to Malabar, while the Silk Road gave them access to central Asia and China. Aromatic herbs such as coriander, cumin, laurel and lovage, rue, mint and mustard became the culinary flavours of the day while the Roman spice rack focussed on pepper, saffron, cardamom and ginger. After the collapse of Rome, international trade died down, only to be resurrected from the 11th century onward by the reopening of the Silk Road, returning Crusaders, and the writings of Italian merchant Marco Polo.
In the early fifteenth century European explorers Vasco de Gama and Columbus introduced the Europeans to India and South America respectively, opening up maritime trade routes around the globe that would make hundreds of new flavours accessible to European kitchens.
Arabia and China, Malabar, Madagascar and Malaya, the names of their origins are as exotic, aromatic and mellifluous as the spices themselves, which appear to have been scattered round the globe like confetti by a thoughtful god with culinary aspirations. James Joyce once wrote, however, that God created food, but the Devil invented spices, which is a legitimate assumption when you consider how many wars have been waged on their account. Spices were both highly prized and highly priced, their sources often shrouded in mystery, as traders wove complex fantasies to confuse their competitors. It was a fierce and risky business, and bloodshed was often at the end of the treasure hunt.
As the Spice Trade burgeoned, mediaeval cuisine was soon characterized by a passion for spice, each region selecting its favourites. Spices were still only available to the wealthy, however, as the peasantry could never have afforded the exorbitant prices. This was to change. With European expansion into Asia and South America, the modern era of food globalization had begun. With growing demand came cultivation, and eventually prices dropped until spices were no longer luxury items on a shopping list. By the twentieth century, modern transport and refrigeration had spread the net of globalization ever wider for new markets, new spices. One source of new spices, however, was almost overlooked.
Australian Aborigines used indigenous herbs and spices to flavour their food for thousands of years before British colonists arrived in the eighteenth century. The new settlers barely acknowledged the native flora and fauna, finding them strange and unfamiliar. They preferred to cultivate plants and animals they knew from home. Over the last thirty years, however, from Sydney to Outback Australia, new Australians have finally begun to recognize the potential of Australian native spices, thus adding another element to this fusion cuisine. Wattleseed and lilly pilly, lemon myrtle and mountain pepper are the trendy new tastes of modern Australian cuisine. As chefs experiment with an expanded spice rack, food writers experiment with the language of taste to describe them.
Spices have also played a part in the language of romantic poetry, their intoxicating aromas inspiring the imaginations and passions of the poets in much the same way their flavours had piqued the taste buds of aristocratic circles.
One spice, a little shy and unassuming, that has sat at the back of the spice rack for centuries, is allspice. Native to Jamaica and Central America, it was originally – and unimaginatively – baptized pimento by sixteenth century Spanish explorers (a derivation of the Spanish word for pepper) because they decided that the dried berries looked like peppercorns. The British, equally unimaginative, christened it allspice, because they thought its aroma had tones of several other spices, namely cloves, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg.
In fact, the modest allspice has a broad range of uses. The Mayans used it as an embalming agent in the first millennium AD. Believed to have medicinal qualities, it was a traditional remedy for indigestion and colds. While mediaeval logic may have been a bit skewed in regards to natural cures and tonics, modern scientific research has actually qualified some of their suppositions. Today scientists suggest allspice may also contain antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, sedative, antiseptic, antiviral and antifungal properties. A recent study also uncovered the fact that allspice contains a compound called ericifolin, which could help to fight prostate cancer.
In the kitchen, allspice has a wide variety of uses too, from flavouring chocolate, cakes and pies, to stews and sausages. Indians season their curries with it, Scandinavians use the berries in pickled herring and sauerkraut. Allspice makes its way into pates and smoked meats. Common in Caribbean cuisine, it is essential for jerked meat, seasoning and pickling, moles and marinades. It is also used to flavour liqueurs such as Benedictine and Chartreuse.
For me, allspice is the heady fragrance of Christmases past, present and future. Scooped up once a year from the depths of the spice cupboard, the little jar is dusted off and shaken up to help rejoice in the dusky richness of flaming Christmas puddings, to lift a thick and cloying pumpkin pie, to give a piquant hint of nostalgia to the mulled wine. Allspice is a must for baking the gingerbread men to hang on the tree, and it is an essential oil that mingles decadently, sentimentally with bergamot oil to weave a spell of Christmas joy around your home. It is truly the taste and scent of Christmas.
First published in Chop Soy, Issue 1, January 2015, and with thanks to Google Images for the pictures.