Spices help to make the holidays taste and smell wonderful. The distinctive aroma radiating from a batch of my grandmother’s lebkuchen or springerle fresh from the oven brings back pleasant memories of past holidays, the only time of the year these flavorful treats were made. Indeed, the holiday season simply would not be the same without certain traditional foods and beverages associated with it. Many of these foods are special because of the use of certain spices or flavorings.
Spices have had a profound influence on our civilization. Their demand in Europe before and during the Renaissance Era led to a lucrative spice trade in which vast fortunes were made. Spice routes carrying the precious cargo developed from their source in the East Indies to Europe. When these routes faltered because of political problems, the need to satiate the palate of the spice-starved aristocracy of Europe prompted early explorers such as Columbus, Da Gamma, Diaz, and Magellan to seek a shorter route to the spice-laden Indies by sailing west. Thus, the “new world” was discovered.
A debate, at times, arises concerning the difference between a spice and an herb. Indeed, the two terms are commonly interchanged in English usage. However, spices most often are derived from dried or processed plant parts which (often) are woody in nature and tropical in habitat. Spices usually are quite strong in flavor and used in relatively small quantities. On the other hand, the word “herb” most often refers to an herbaceous (non-woody) plant with pungent tissue whose leaves, stems or seeds are used for their aromatic, culinary or medicinal properties. Herb flavors usually are milder than those of spices and often best when used fresh, although most herbs dry quite readily.
A few plants fit into the “flavoring” category. These are plants that have an essential oil that is extracted from it and used to flavor dishes or beverages. Vanilla is an example of a flavoring derived from the seed pod of Vanilla planifolia, an orchid native to Mexico whereas peppermint is a flavoring distilled from the leaves of Mentha x piperita, a hybrid of two species of mint native to Europe.
Probably the oldest and most sought after spice throughout history is cinnamon—a key ingredient in many holiday treats. True cinnamon comes from the bark of a small, bushy tree (Cinnamomum verum) and is native to Sri Lanka and India. The use of cinnamon can be traced back 7000 years. The ancient Egyptians used cinnamon in embalming their dead and in sacred ceremonies. It still is a common component of incense used in churches in various parts of the world. Cinnamon was widely used in medieval Europe in food preparation. Most meals were prepared in a single cauldron containing several different ingredients and cinnamon helped to bridge the flavor gaps between them.
The Dutch invaded Sri Lanka in the 17th Century and established a system of cinnamon cultivation that exists today. The dryer, inner-bark of the cinnamon tree is the source of the spice. After the branches are cut, the bark is scraped and the inner-bark removed in long sections. As it dries it tends to curl into small sticks. Bark that does not curl properly is ground and marketed as ground cinnamon.
Nutmeg is synonymous with egg nog and other holiday fare. It comes from the seed of Myristica fragrans a tropical, evergreen tree native to the Moluccas, also known as the Spice Islands of Indonesia. The Portugese (and later the Dutch) invaded these islands and went to great measures to prevent living plants or viable seeds of nutmeg from being exported from these islands in order to maintain a monopoly on this precious spice. Legend has it that a Frenchman by the name of Pierre Poivre smuggled nutmeg and clove seeds from the Moluccas to the island of Mauritius off the west coast of Africa. From there nutmeg was taken to the West Indies where commercial production now takes place. Grenada often is referred to as the “Nutmeg Island” and its flag depicts the green, red and yellow colors of the plant as well as its image in one corner.
Myristica fragrans actually produces two important spices. Nutmeg is derived from the tree’s actual seed which is egg-shaped and weighs about one-third of an ounce when dried. The dried lacy covering of the seed (the arillus) is the source of mace. Since there is about 100 times more nutmeg than mace in a single seed, the latter usually is more expensive. Nutmeg is considered the sweeter of the two but mace has more delicate flavor. Nutmeg has long been considered to contain mystical powers and was used as an amulet to protect against a wide variety of evils and dangers in ancient times. Connecticut is known unofficially as “The Nutmeg State” reportedly because of the practice of shrewd Yankee traders carving imitation nutmegs out of ordinary wood and selling them to unsuspecting customers. An interesting early use of nutmeg was tucking a seed under one’s left armpit before attending a social gathering as a way of attracting admirers.
Another popular holiday spice is clove which is the dried flower bud of two species of trees (Eugenia aromaticum and E. caryophyllata). Vasco da Gama found clove trees growing on the Spice Islands although the trees are native to Malaysia. The word “clove” comes the Latin clavis which means nail and is descriptive of its shape. A clove is comprised of a long calyx which ends with four spreading sepals and four rudimentary petals that form a ball in the center of the sepals. The buds are bright red but develop a reddish-brown color when dried. When the buds are allowed to blossom on the tree they produce a brilliant red flower.
The Chinese used cloves over 6000 years ago and their literature records the suggestion that courtiers should keep a clove in their mouth when addressing the emperor to keep from offending him. Cloves and nutmeg were among 16th and 17th century Europe’s most precious commodities and were more than worth their weight in gold. Magellan’s ill-fated trip around the world that began in 1519 with five ships and 250 men and ended in 1522 with one ship and 18 men still was considered a financial success because of the 50 tons of cloves and nutmeg the surviving ship carried. Because cloves were thought to kill intestinal parasites and have broad anti-microbial activity, over the centuries they have been used to treat ailments ranging from indigestion and nausea to athlete’s foot and gout. Yet today, clove oil can be found in a number of health-related products ranging from mouthwash to tooth ache remedies.
Ginger is an important component of pumpkin pie and gingerbread, and other holiday staples. As with many other spices, ginger originally was a product of India and southeast Asia. It is derived from a tropical, reed-like perennial plant (Zingiber officinale) with colorful flowers. Often referred to as “ginger root”, ginger actually comes from the thickened underground stem or rhizome of the plant. Ginger was used by ancient Chinese for its medicinal properties. Introduced by Arab caravans, it was one of the first spices to arrive in Europe and became so popular that it was included along with salt and pepper at nearly every table setting. It was used to combat the plague in Medieval times and was kept in dried, ground form at pubs and inns for patrons to sprinkle into their beer and stir with a hot poker. Thus ginger ale was invented.
Anise oil, with its licorice-like aroma, was the main flavoring in my grandmother’s springerle. It is derived from the seeds of Pimpinella anisum, a flowering annual native to the eastern Mediterranean region and Southwest Asia. It has been cultivated for over 4000 years and was used as an herbal remedy for a number of ailments, including stomach problems. Ancient Romans served anise in a spiced cake at the end of a feast to aid with digestion. It also was used to treat respiratory problems because of its expectorant properties. Over the years, it found its way into the cuisine of many different countries including Great Britain (anise balls), Australia (humbugs), New Zealand (anise wheels), Italy (pizzelle), Germany (pfeffernüsse and springerle), the Netherlands (muisjes) and Mexico (champurrado).
Allspice is spice associated with fruit cake, cookies and other holiday cuisine and derives its name from the fact it has the aroma of a combination of spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger. Allspice is derived from the dried, unripened fruit of a tropical, evergreen tree indigenous to Central and South America that bears the scientific name of Pimenta dioica, which is a misnomer. The latter most likely resulted from the fact that early Spanish explorers mistook the berries of allspice for black pepper, which the Spanish called pimienta. Still today, oil pressed from the berries often is called “pimento oil”. Allspice is the only spice native to the Western Hemisphere.
Ancient Mayans used allspice in embalming procedures and other natives were said to have used it to flavor chocolate and as a digestive aid. Later it was used to preserve meats or to mask the ill-flavor of tainted meats. Allspice-preserved meat was called boucan. The latter is the origin of the word “buccaneers” which described European sailors who relied on this staple. In spite of its rich aroma imitating other precious spices, allspice never enjoyed the same popularity in Europe as did other spices except for in England where it often was referred to as “English spice”. An interesting use of allspice occurred during the Napoleonic war of 1812 when Russian soldiers sprinkled it in their shoes to keep their feet warm. The resultant and coincidental improvement in hygiene also prompted allspice to be used in the cosmetic industry where it still is associated with men’s toiletries.
So, this holiday season when you dip into the eggnog or indulge in a Christmas cookie or two, remember the spices and flavorings that make these treats so delectable. They have had a profound influence on our civilization for thousands of years and still add pleasure and interest to our lives.
REVISED: September 29, 2015