We love them all year round. But, tradition helping, cinnamon, nutmeg, juniper and cloves embalm especially during the holidays. Not a Christmas, indeed, without a fragrant gingerbread or a raised eggnog. In savoury or sweet dishes, let the seasonings of the season charm you.
Fascinating history of spices
Although spices have been part of our culinary daily life for decades, they remain unknown in many ways. In fact, cooking in its broadest sense, and especially regional cuisine, would not be what it is without the essential contribution of spices that give it a particular character, often unique. More than that, the geopolitical map of the world would be very different today without their existence.
Consumed since time immemorial in popular pharmacopoeia, used to preserve food or enhance its flavour, sometimes even official currency, especially in the case of pepper, spices have been at the origin of the greatest explorations that the world has known. The Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, Magellan and many others often had as an avowed or unspoken goal of their expeditions the trading of spices. When Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies in 1492, he was looking for the spice route that would take him to India.
Sold at gold prices for centuries, they were the subject of territorial wars between the great colonial powers, and the plantations were jealously protected. This is particularly the case for nutmeg and cloves, both from the Moluccas archipelago in Indonesia, whose monopoly was held by the Dutch in the 1600s. Cultivation was then concentrated on a few islands that were easy to defend, small areas where trees and shrubs were almost all felled or uprooted to make way for the precious nutmeg and cloves. These plantations were under high military protection, and the Aborigines who did not want to work there were simply eliminated. But it was inevitable that such coveted plants would eventually be scattered all over the world, a situation that put an end to the great monopolies of the time.
Today, spices can be purchased at low prices in all the “grocery stores” that have obviously lost their primary vocation. The gesture is daily, banal. Yet every time you handle a spice, it is usually the result of a particular episode in human history.
Although it is also considered to be native to the Moluccas archipelago, the clove would never have been found in the wild. A tree with a warm and humid climate, it is produced by seedlings and then transplanted when it reaches a metre in height. It begins to produce around the age of six, when it reaches about seven meters in height, half its maximum size. In full production, a clove tree produces about two kilos of dried nails per year.
Cloves are actually a floral button before it blooms. Yellowish, it gradually turns dark orange or purple at harvest time and reaches 1 cm in length. The buttons are hand-picked and dried in the sun for three days.
Used in countless dishes and culinary preparations, cloves also have other little-known uses. In Indonesia, it is used to flavor a type of cigarettes, in perfumery, it gives this particular scent of carny to the famous Coco de Chanel or Ysatis de Givenchy and enters several pharmaceutical products. It contains eugenol, a odorous compound with antiseptic and analgesic virtues. Just a few decades ago, a clove between the gums was still recommended to relieve painful toothache, a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. Today, eugenol and its variants are used in oral hygiene and dentistry, in dressings.
Cloves have also had an unexpected culinary application: it has made artificial vanilla. It is by oxidation of eugenol that we obtained the synthetic vanillin now used on an industrial scale, a product whose chemical composition is very similar to the natural vanillin that gives the pod of the vanilla tree its reason to be.
From the spices of the holidays, the juniper berry is probably the least known here. It is relatively little used, and is found in the famous sauerkraut. It is also used in cold cuts and in the preparation of sauces, marinades or in dishes of game, pork, poultry or rabbit. These dark blue berries also flavour the famous English gin, Dutch or Belgian juniper, the Scandinavian aquavit, in addition to perfume some beers and several spirits. Its essential oil is also used in the manufacture of perfumes.
Juniper is the fruit of the common juniper that is part of the sixty species that count this large family of trees and shrubs, plants used on a very large scale in ornamental horticulture.
Common juniper is often considered the largest-distribution shrub in the world. It is found almost everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, from North America to Europe, northern Asia and Japan. It is no more than two metres high, but in Europe and New England, the shrub can turn into a real tree more than eight metres high. The cultivars used for decorative purposes also reach a large size.
Female flowers are actually cones, such as pine or fir pots. They become pseudobaies, or galbules in scientific terms, which turn dark blue at maturity in their second year. Harvested in the wild during the fall, the fruits take on their spicy flavour when drying.
Originally from the Banda Islands in the Moluccas, Indonesia, nutmeg is now produced throughout the warm tropical environment, including India, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean island of Grenada, where Canadian wholesalers mainly source. But, curiously, it is mostly consumed in Europe and North America.
Nutmeg is used in many pastries and can be used in a multitude of dishes, from meats to fish and vegetables. It is also used to flavour a few liqueurs, such as Chartreuse or some vermouths.
The nutmeg is a fragrant tree that can reach about fifteen meters in height. The nutmeg is covered with a thick pulp and an orange coat, which, once dried and powdered, takes the name mace. As for the nut, it is always grated before use. It is enough to bury a nutmeg under a tree for a wish to come true, says a legend.
There are more than 250 species of cane, but only three or four of them are grown for condiment. The most famous cinnamon is produced by the Ceylon canellier (now Sri Lanka) and is widely used in Europe. Its leaves are shiny and when crumpled they emit a smell of… clove. The tree can reach a height of up to 15 metres.
The cinnamon offered on the Canadian market usually comes from the Indonesian cane, Cinnamomum burmannii, of its scientific name, mostly grown on the large island of Sumatra. Its taste is similar to Ceylon cinnamon, but it is fuller. But for the consumer, it is usually impossible to determine the origin of the product because the labels remain silent on it.
Mostly used in powder, cinnamon is simply the bark of the trunk or branches of the cane tree. The tree is often grown to form large, bush-shaped, upright suckers, making it easier to extract the bark. The stems can be treated when they reach about 2 meters in height, after three or four years of growth. Harvesting takes place during the rainy season, when the tissues are full of sap and the bark is easy to remove. It is incised to the wood, delicately detached from the stem, dried for 24 hours and then thoroughly cleaned and cut into chunks. The drying will then continue, a step that will allow the pieces of bark to gradually curl over themselves. They will then take on a pale brown color and their characteristic smell.
Cinnamon is widely used in cooking, especially in pastry and desserts. In Canada, it is often associated with applesauce, and consumption always jumps significantly in the fall, when orchards are in fruit, spice wholesalers say. In stick, it perfumes coffee, chocolate milk and of course the mulled wine that we drink during the holidays!
– Ricardo cuisine – Pierre Gingras –