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The magic of spices, the magic of Christmas

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Cinamon, cardamon, nutmeg, cloves, anise, vanilla, ginger accompany us during this magical Christmas period. They are present in cakes, gingerbread teas or mulled wine. Christmas period is a time of indulgent into variety of spices, their aromas, tastes and magic.



What is a spice?


"One thing seems relatively clear at least: broadly spices are not herbs. Herb are the (often) green, herbaceous, aromatic (generally) leafy, non-dried parts of plants that grow in (mostly) mild climate.

Spices, by contrast, are the (mostly) dried parts - the bark, root, flower bud, resin, fruit or stigma - of plants that grow in (broadly) tropical climates. Spices are expensive in comparison to herbs. Where herbs are democratic, spices are elite; yet while making us poorer, they enrich our lives. Spices elevate our meals and our imagination. There is no substitute for a spice".


I think we will not find a better description of the spice comparing to the one coming from the book "The Grammar of Spice" by Caz Hildebrand and I think the time around Chistmas is one of the best time to smell, taste and enjoy the variety of spices. We use them in gingerbread, cookies, aromatic teas - they sensitise our senses and are warming us from inside out. They have their own character and magic and therefore attract people for many centuries, having also a bit of dark side during colonial times.


From nutritional perspective they are loaded with essential oil, phytonutients and minerals which support our bodies and health.


Let's have a bit closer look into the most popular spices which we can taste in the pastries, cookies and gingerbread and other food or drinks.


Green cardamon - the third most expensive in the world after saffron and vanilla. the green cardamon pods are the dried fruit of a perennial herb Elettaria cardamom - a member of the ginger family that grows in rainforest in southern India. I can just imagine the smell of the forest. Green cardamon contains more than twenty-five essential oils which give it its intense aroma.

It enriches both sweet and savoury food and goes well with apples, pears, mangoes, limes, sweet potatoes, carrots, chicken, ducks, lamb, rice, yogurt, coffee or chocolate.

It has also anti-oxidants properties and has been research in terms of lowering blood pressure or sensitising to insulin.





Cinnamon - it is an inner bark of evergreen laurel tree native to Sri Lanka. It's taste is sweet and warming. When the cinnamon tree is around two years old it is coppiced and its stump covered, causing it grow like a bush. The new shoots make the cinammon and when they are cut the bark is taken off and the peels laid out in the sun to dry and this naturally curl into the quills.

It goes well with sweet and savoury food, in Western world quite it often spices up the bread, pies, cookies, in North Africa and India it spice up tanginess, stews, chutneys and pilaffs. Try it with apples, plums, pears, apricots, almonds, chocolate, coffee, lamb, pork, chicken, beef, aubergine, tomatoes, onions.

Cinnamon is used for the support with lowering blood lipids, regulating blood sugar, improving brain activity and boosting memory and better digestion.



Cloves - in the shape of little nails they are the dried flower buds of the evergreen tree Syzyium aromatic, this tree can live for a century or more (growing up to 20m high) and is native to the Maluka Islands in Indonesia. With a warm, peppery, camphor's aroma and fruity, sharp, hot taste, cloves can numb the mouth (so can be used as a home remedy for toothache). One bud can give the aroma to the entire dish, so cloves need to be used in the reasonable amount in order not to overpower the dish.

Again they go well with sweet and savoury dishes - try with pork, ham, chicken, beetroot, red cabbage, onions, squash, sweet potatoes, apples, plums, chocolate.

During the Christmas period you may taste them in the mulled wine, gingerbread spice, British bread sauce or "meat with wine and garlic" in Madeira.


Vanilla - the vanilla orchid grows wild in tropical forest in Mexico. The flower lasts only a day (eight hours) and are pollinated either by hummingbird and mellophone or by hand. The yellowish - green pod-like fruits which grow within a month of flowers dying, are harvested before becoming fully ripe, afterwards they are left into hot steam in order to ferment for up to six month. It is no doubt why vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world.

Its heady, rich, mellow taste and hints of sweet perfume vanilla is a spice for sweet foods, fruits (like strawberries, apples, peaches, pears, bananas, rhubarb or blackberries), it is often used to bolster chocolate, coffee, almond and warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.





Nutmeg - this wooden balls are the pips of the nutmeg tree. The tree grows in tropical conditions near the sea, and particularly in rich volcanic soils. The nutmeg flavour comes from myristicin, the volatile oil also present in carrots, parsley or celery. In According to Ayurveda it might have toxic effect if used too much - it is known as "narcotic fruit" and therefore forbidden to use in Saudi Arabia or Oman.

It again goes well with sweet and savoury meals, very often used with potatoes, cauliflower, sweet potatoes but also with chicken, lamb, veal, fish, cabbage, spinach, apples, plums, lemons or eggs.





Ginger - is a rhizome (not a root) of a bamboo-like plant originally grown in South East Asia. It has rich, warming, woody scent and tangy flavor, the characteristic comes from a non-volatile resin called zingerone. Quite often used fresh in teas and other dishes like curries, chutneys or marinated. In Japan we find pickled ginger thinly sliced.

Ginger can be added to sweet or savory dishes like fish, seafood, pork, poultry, cabbage, carrots, aubergine, tomatoes, beetroot, rhubarb, plums, apples, pears, mangoes, almonds.


It is much appreciated for anti-inflammatory properties, helping to reduce pain (for example painful periods or joint paints) but also support for the digestion and the warming up effect. In winter delicious as a tea with lemon and honey.


Anise - the seeds smell and taste sweet, with a warming liquorice quality. The specific taste is very well recognisable and used also as flavour to alkoholik drinks like Greek ouzo, Lebanese raki or Turkish arak. Romans used it as flavourings and digestive aids. Enjoy it with pork, beef, chicken, oxtail, fish, shellfish, fennel, parsnip, carrots, plums, peaches, pears, apples, melon, figs, pineapple, cherries, cinnamon.


Below you may find the original Speculaas recipe which can be used for any Christmas baking or drinks:


2 tbs ground cinnamon

2 tsp freshly grounded nutmeg

2 tsp ground cloves

2 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground white pepper

1 tsp ground anise

1/2 tsp ground cardamon


Mix all the spices together. Store in airtight container for up to 6 weeks.


Big part of the above blog input comes from the book the "Grammar of Spice" by Caz Hildebrand. If you are interested in the spices, their history and amazing description of their tastes and values you may find such information in it.


Wishing you a Merry Christmas!


Gosia

















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