You can't win for losing in this job. I write articles all
year long concerning the care and culture of fruits, nuts, vegetables,
and sometimes, ornamentals. Yet, folks are never satisfied!
I received complaints because I never provide information concerning
spices and herbs.
I can't please all of the people all of the time, but I try
to please some of the people some of the time. With the expert
assistance of Mike Bolner, of Bolner's Fiesta Products, Inc.,
I have assembled some little known (maybe little cared about)
facts concerning spices.
More than half of the spices used today were at one time used
to cure the ills of ancient man. For example, basil was used
in the Far East as a cough medicine, and by the French to ward
off insects. Chervil (often called "gourmet's parsley")
was used in the First Century to cure hiccups. It is more aromatic
than parsley and, because it has a tendency to bring out the
flavors of other herbs and spices, it is often carefully blended
Fenugreek was used in the middle ages to cure baldness. Ginger
was recommended by Henry VIII as a cure for the Black Plague.
Marjoram was used to cure asthma, coughs, toothaches, headaches,
spider bites and heart conditions. It is actually used to flavor
vegetables, meats, liverwurst, cheeses, chicken, turkey stuffing,
soups and sauces as well as ward off evil spirits. Mint leaves
were utilized in the Middle Ages to cure bites from mad dogs.
Another use of spices was for animal husbandry purposes. For
instance, Fennel was used in the Middle Ages to ward off evil
spirits and was put on cows to keep milk from being bewitched.
Present-day usage is less exciting. It is the primary ingredient
in pepperoni, and it is used to flavor bread, soups, pastry,
sweet pickles and fish dishes. Fennel is often called the fish
Fenugreek was fed to horses to produce a slick, glossy coat.
Mint leaves were used to prevent milk from curdling (coagulating
or congealing) and repelling mice. Basil was thought to cause
scorpions to grow so plantings should be minimized.
Spices also played an important role in certain matrimonial
aspects. In fact, basil was worn in the hair of Italian suitors
to signify matrimonial intention. Basil is now used as a flavoring
in stews, sauces, sausages and dressings, and it rivals oregano
as a pizza seasoning. It is also an important ingredient in
chicken cacciatore. To insure that all intentions of a marriage
were perfectly clear, the spice rosemary would always show up.
Present day use of rosemary is as a spice in stews, soups, cooked
potatoes and vegetables. However, since rosemary was the symbol
of fidelity, Greek bridesmaids would give some to the groom
to remind him to be faithful. If you lived in ancient Greece,
you and your spouse would crush mint leaves and rub them on
tables to show your hospitality to visitors.
Speaking of crushed, Emperor Nero burned Rome's entire supply
of cinnamon as a sign of his grief when his wife died. Although
cinnamon is a commonly used spice in this country, there is
considerable misunderstanding as to the different types, grades,
and uses of cinnamon. The ground "cinnamon" that is
used in cooking, or that would be put on "cinnamon toast",
is not true cinnamon. It is CASSIA. Cassia has a more intense
aroma than cinnamon. It is not as delicate as cinnamon, and
is reddish-brown in color, whereas true cinnamon is a tan color.
Since 1938, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has permitted
the term "cinnamon" to be applied to both cassia and
Ground cinnamon, i.e. cassia, is available, but so are true
cinnamon sticks that can be used in special applications. There
are two distinct types of sticks. For cooking, you should use
the soft?quill, true CEYLON cinnamon stick. These are often
used to make pickled fruits and hot beverages. For decoration
and to stir drinks, you should use the hard-quill BATAVIA cut
Spices have an interesting history. Ginger is the first recorded
oriental spice. William Shakespeare mentioned bay leaves, ginger,
marjoram, mustard, onion, parsley, pepper, rosemary, saffron,
savory and thyme in his writings. Roman soldiers ate garlic
to gain courage. If no garlic was available, they could use
parsley. Black magic ritual recommends that to eliminate an
enemy, you should hold this spice and mutter the intended victim's
name. The person will die within 48 hours. That's my kind of
For you penny pinchers, consider saffron - it is without a
doubt the most expensive spice in the world and for good reason.
It has a sharp penetrating aroma and imparts a beautiful yellow
color and nut-like flavor. It can be used in the preparation
of seafood, rice dishes, pastries, butter, cheeses, and candies.
A pinch of saffron will go a long way and should be used sparingly.
The high cost is due to the fact that saffron is the dried stigma
of a crocus?like flower. Each plant produces one flower and
each flower produces only three stigma. Once a plant flowers,
the stigma must be hand-harvested within 15 days. It takes 210,000
stigma, hand?picked from 70,000 flowers, to make one pound of
saffron. But, when used by a creative chef, saffron is worth
the effort and price of over $400 per pound.
Pepper is the most consumed spice in the United States. Jalapeno
pepper powder can be used in spicy marinades, hot sauce blends
and, of course, jalapeno cornbread. Paprika is another type
of pepper. All paprika is a seasoning made from the dried pods
of the capsicum pepper. Paprika comes in a wide variety of colors
and pungency. Most of the paprika sold in this country is the
"sweet", non?pungent variety, with a brilliant red
color. It has striking eye-appeal when used on light?colored
foods such as cheeses, eggs, potatoes, and light?colored sauces.
It is used commercially to add color to sausage and prepared
meat products. Paprika used in the United States comes from
California, Spain and Hungary, with lesser amounts coming from
Yugoslavia, Morocco, and Bulgaria. Hungarian-style paprika differs
from other paprika in that it has true distinctive flavor associated
with Hungarian goulash.
After pepper, mustard is the most consumed spice in the United
States. It also has the distinction of having the smallest spice
seed, yet a plant that can grow ten feet tall.
I hesitate to mention the spice that has the most colorful
history because supplies are limited. The limited supply has
been caused by yours truly purchasing all available stock for
my wife's intravenous injections twice daily to correct her
genetic limitations. The herb is fenugreek (foenugreek). It
is one of the oldest cultivated plants and was eaten by harem
women in North Africa and the Middle East to achieve a buxom,
captivating plumpness. Anything is worth a try! It has been
found in Egyptian tombs, was used in ancient Greece as a medicine,
is used in the perfume trade and, even today, it is eaten in
a toasted form by women in the Middle East and North Africa
as a beauty aid. Fenugreek has a somewhat sharp taste like that
of maple and burnt sugar, and is a prominent part of many curry
blends. Creative chefs experiment with its use in sauces, but
in this country Fenugreek's primary use is that of the principal
flavor used to make imitation maple syrup.
If fenugreek solves some of your problems, you may want to
invest in cardamom, celery seed, coriander, dill, nutmeg and
savory. All of these are believed to be aphrodisiacs.
With that useful fact, I will complete this discussion of
herbs. There are many kinds of herbs. The ones mentioned have
an interesting history and are available from local sources.
Try some - they might spice up your life.