Not just for adding to curry recipes, spices play a key part in many of the well-known tastes of Christmas: from mulled wine to adding an extra taste to your ham joint.
One theory is that the Crusaders brought back the idea of using Spices in food and associated it with the celebration of Christ since he was born in modern day Palestine. It also helped to firmly establish Christmas as a Christian holiday, replacing the pagan Sol Invictus. Another theory is that the strong smell and taste of spices helped to mask the taste of meat that was past its best!
Many spices also have natural medicinal properties. We take a look at the four most used spices at Christmas.
Despite it’s name, Allspice isn’t a mixture of many spices it’s actually a single spice. It’s Caribbean in origin and is the dried berry of the Pimenta Diocia tree, a relative of Myrtle. It was the English who gave it the name Allspice when it was discovered in the 1600s due to it tasting similar to a combination of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
Allspice can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes but it’s perhaps best known in Caribbean/Jamaican ‘jerk seasoning’. It also has many medicinal properties with many folk medicines using it as a key ingredient. It’s often used to treat colic, stomach upsets and for general pain relief.
Cloves are a very pungent spice made from the flower buds of an evergreen tree called, appropriately, The Clove Tree!
The dried buds are shaped like a small reddish-brown spike and they can be used whole or ground. Ground cloves are very pungent so be careful with the amount you use in recipes!
Cloves are grown in India, Madagascar and Indonesia. At one time, the trade in Cloves was so lucrative in the Spice Islands that in 1667, following the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the British relinquished the Spice Islands to the Dutch in exchange for New Amsterdam, which is now known as Manhattan Island!
As well as being used in many sweet and savoury recipes, the essential oil from Cloves is very commonly used in aromatherapy for stress relief. Cloves are often used in Indian and Chinese medicine as a warming and stimulating substance.
True Cinnamon dates back to Chinese writings in 2800 B.C and is native to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). So prized, centuries ago it was said to be worth fifteen times the same weight in silver!
As well as a key flavour for many sweet and savoury cuisines, Cinnamon was widely used by doctors and medieval physicians. The spice was also valued for it’s preservative qualities for meat - the phenols it contains inhibit bacteria responsible for spoilage, with the added bonus that the strong aroma masked the stench of aged meats.The Egyptians also used it in their embalming process!
Ginger is the root of the giner plant Zingiber Officiale and belongs to the same family as turmeric and cardamom. It’s widely available in six different forms: fresh, dried, pickled, preserved, candied and powdered and is easily used in sweet and savoury cooking. The taste of fresh ginger compared to powdered ginger is very different and is not easily exchanged in recipes.
Ginger also has many health benefits especially stomach upsets or gastrointenstinal problems. There is also scientific evidence that it can help control nausea, reduce pain and improve joint function for people with arthritis and is a natural antibacterial.