Monday, May 14, 2012

5 spicy facts every foodie should know

I thought I'd dispense with the pedantry this time around to spice up my blog. Bad puns aside, I thought my readers might like to know that I enjoy cooking and entertaining. As it happens, one of my favourite cookbooks is The Spice Cookbook by Avanelle Day and Lillie Stuckley. A wonderful book first printed in 1964, it is, sadly, out of print now. Nevertheless, it is a treasure trove of little known facts, some of which I'm sharing here.

Pepper, poppy seed, ginger, cloves and sesame; nutmeg, mace, turmeric, cinnamon and basil. For millennia, these spices of the East—these insignificant curls of bark, shrivelled seeds, dried leaves and gnarled roots—have flowed like rivers of fragrance along the trade routes of Antiquity into legend and history. Today, these routes are buried—like these little-known facts—by time. Time’s tradition, however, remains.

Allspice: The spice that time—and Columbus—nearly forgot

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” With three small ships, he discovered America. It’s ironic, however, in this age of frantic exploration for spices and gold, that he did not discover allspice, one of the richest treasures in the Western Hemisphere. Twice, as he made his way through the Caribbean Islands, Columbus viewed all kinds of trees laden with fruit, which he did not recognize because they were not yet ripe. Had he been a botanist, he would have recognized them as allspice trees. Yet, because the dried allspice berry looks just like an oversized peppercorn, the Spaniards apparently thought the fruit was pepper. Thus, they named the spice “pimento”, and the botanists called the tree Pimenta officinalis.

Cumin: Keeps husbands from from zoomin’

Wives whose husbands are apt to stray just when the soufflé reaches its proudest moment should always keep cumin on hand. If you believe the old wives’ tales from long ago, cumin can discourage such disloyalty to the art of cookery, just as it can stop chickens and pigeons from straying.

It isn’t clear just where this folklore originated. Should a wife eat the seeds, carry them in her apron pocket, or deposit them in her husband’s pant pocket?

However, if you explore medieval weddings in Germany, the literature is specific: both the bride and groom carried cumin, dill and salt in their pockets during the marriage ceremony—supposedly to ensure faithfulness and forsaking all others for as long as they both lived.

In other parts of Europe, a young man leaving home to become a soldier would carry a loaf of cumin bread baked by his sweetheart. Alternatively, his lady love may share with him a farewell glass of wine in which powdered cumin had been mixed.

Dill-icious magic potions
To medieval gardeners, who anxiously weeded and watered dill beds, dill was a powerful ingredient in magic potions. Sorcerers who gathered to stir up a pot of trouble for someone included dill to make their concoction more potent. However, if the intended victim got an inkling of the planned hex, he would hurry to his dill patch.

This is because dill was also thought to have antimagic properties and could ward off the Evil Eye. The Evil Eye, according to encyclopedias of the time, was the art of “fascination”: it gave people the power to bewitch, injure or kill merely at a glance. To make themselves invulnerable against the Evil Eye, people carried a bag of dried dill over the heart.

If Frodo Baggins had had poppy seeds

Magic has also been attributed to poppy seeds. Folklore tells us that, long ago, when someone wanted to escape his captors, he had only to sprinkle poppy seeds in his shoes. This would allow him to pass among them unseen. If Frodo had known this, it would have saved him a whole heap of trouble!

Tarragon and … dragons?

Tarragon, treasured herb of sophisticated salad-makers and sauciers, was completely unknown to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians living near the Mediterranean. It was first mentioned in the thirteenth century by El-beithar, a famous Arab doctor, who prescribed it as a purifier during times of pestilence.

Three centuries later, in the sixteenth century, tarragon had reached kitchens in Europe. Like El-beithar, who called it tarkhum (Arabic for “dragon”), the French called it estragon, or “little dragon”—likely because its roots grow in serpentine fashion.

Want even more factoids to spice up your life?

Find out about spice folklore and the origin and uses of spices: visit McCormick’s Enspicelopedia to learn more about the colourful history behind your favourite flavours.

No comments:

Post a Comment