• Contact
  • Archive | Herbs & Spices RSS feed for this section

    The Spices of the Spice Trade

    By calling it the “Spice Trade”, it creates this abstraction in our head. Yes, there was spice, yes there was trade, but beyond that, there is no information that go into details as to which spices were involved. This post seeks to correct that.

    However, it’s important to note that most spice traders from 1560-1800 (The era I’m wishing to cover), didn’t deal exclusively in spices. They dealt in anything that got them a decent return on investment. This isn’t to say that they were trading black pepper one day, and then slaves the next. After all, men are creatures of habit, and they will return to a well that provides water. But to think that the only things on their ships were spices is misleading and often incorrect.

    Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, what spices am I generally talking about?

    First and foremost – black pepper. This is the spice that was most coveted, was the primary spice that made Venice wealthy and powerful, and the spice that, primarily, was the reason that Portugal looked for a way around the Cape of Good Hope.

    Then there were the spices that were thought could have their production controlled. These were cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and mace (Note – Mace and Nutmeg are from the same plant). If their production was limited, whomever controlled them could demand more money for them.

    Finally, there were the items that weren’t spices at all. These are items who play a role in their history for some reason or another, items I hope to delve into. These include salt (which the Dutch had a devil of a time procuring when they didn’t have access to Portugal (thanks to severak Spanish embargoes). Coffee and Tea, commodities that which both the Dutch and English gained a taste for. And opium, which the British used as trading commodities with the Chinese (a gross oversimplification, but suits the need here).

    I will hopefully be going over each of these items individual in the future.


    Tea Tips, Tricks, and Hints

    I haven’t done one of these in a while, what with the several trips I’ve had to both plan and participate.

    • Tea Bags often contain stale tea. Loose leaf tea is often fresher and is the better choice.
    • Store tea in a dry, dark place in a sealed container. The tea can be stored that way up to one year.
    • Use only a ceramic or glass teapot. Metal teapots can affect flavor.
    • Water matters. If you’re city’s water is highly mineralized, used bottled or filtered water.
    • For the amount of tea used, 1 heaping teaspoon for every 6 oz. cup of tea, plus one teaspoon of tea for the pot.
    • If you do not know what kind of tea being used, steep in hot water for at least 3 minutes, no more than 5.
    • To remove tea stains, scrubs with a paste of baking soda and water.
    • To flavor loose tea, store it with citrus peels, cloves, vanilla beans, or other whole spices.
    • Tea bags are the better choice for a healthier cup of tea (if you’re looking to take advantage of the antioxidants). The tea in the bags are smaller and thus has more surface area exposed, ensuring the compounds can be released.
    • Adding milk to tea will reduce the amount of antioxidants available.
    • To make iced tea, used about twice as much tea as is needed for hot tea.
    • To prevent cloudy iced tea, allow the tea to cool before putting in the refrigerator.
    • If you make cloudy iced tea, add some boiling water, and allow to cool.

    As always, add your own tips in the comments.


    Pepper and Peppercorn Tips and Hints

    More tips and hints.

    • Dried Peppercorns can be stored for up to one year. After that, they get stale and slowly lose their flavor.
    • Ground Pepper loses its flavor rather quickly. Once ground, it should be stored in a cool , dark place for up to three months.
    • Brined Peppercorns can be stored indefinitely if never opened. Once open, they can be kept for 1 month.
    • Freshly ground pepper has a more lively flavor than its pre-ground counterpart.
    • White Pepper is the best option if you want the flavor of pepper in a lightly colored dish, but don’t want to influence its appearance.
    • Add 1/2 teaspoon of peppercorns to a to a shaker nearly full of ground pepper will keep the pepper tasting fresher and prevent clumping.
    • If looking for a specific variety of peppercorns, Tellicherry and Indian Malabar are highly regarded.
    • For white peppercorns, Sarawak are quite tasty.
    • Another strike against pre-ground pepper: Most peppercorns used in pre-ground are typically of a poorer quality.
    • Pepper is the perfect combination for savory dishes.
    • One ounce of ground pepper equates to 5 Tablespoons.
    • One cup of peppercorns equates to roughly 1.66 ounces.


    Types of Peppercorns

    Anyone who has walked into the spice aisle of the grocery store knows that pepper comes in more colors than simply black. It’s just that black pepper is the best known and most widely used.

    But what of the other offerings? What do they bring to the table? Should they be part of your spice cabinet repertoire? Could I ask any more rhetorical questions?

    Anyways, here’s a quick reference to use as you wish.

    The first thing you need to remember is that pepper comes from ground peppercorns. This may be obvious to some, but it still needs to be said. That said, the second you thing you need to know is that white peppercorns, black peppercorns, green peppercorns, and red peppercorns are all the same type of seed from the Piper nigrum plant. The color of the peppercorn represents a different time of maturity of the seed.

    Black Peppercorns: The least mature of the peppercorns, and the strongest in flavor. They get their black coloring when they are dried.

    Green Peppercorns: Green peppercorns are essentially black peppercorns that were not allowed to dry. Thus they are also not mature and spciy n flavor. They are also typically pickled (usually found next to capers in the grocery store), but some are flash frozen.

    Red Peppercorns: These are mature peppercorns, and then either dried or brined. These are rare to impossible to find in the United States. If you do see them, and they are relatively inexpensive, they are likely not of the Piper nigrum family.

    White Peppercorns: Mature peppercorns that have been dried and had their outer skins removed. These taste a little spicier than black pepper but have less flavor. Here’s a bit of White Pepper trivia – White pepper outsells black pepper 10:1 in Northern Europe, roughly opposite of the ratio here in the United States.


    The History of Pepper

    It is one of the most innocuous of spices. We see it every day, on nearly every table, and very few ever give two thoughts about the stuff. For many, it’s the first real spice that we get to eat on a regular basis. No – it’s not salt (which is, technically speaking, a mineral and not a spice). Rather, it’s black pepper, the Bud Abbot to salt’s Lou Costello.

    Black pepper has been around for nearly 4000 years, fortuitously not so coincidentally from the Black Pepper plant that is found native to the Western Ghats of Kerala State, India, where it still occurs wild in the mountains. The Black Pepper plant is also called Piper nigrum. Most black pepper comes from India, but it is also exported from Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil.

    It’s also one of the spices that had launched the spice trade, along with ginger (which I’ll get to next). It was quite popular in Rome, as Pliny the Elder had remarked. It has remained a near necessity in Europe ever since. They were also rare (as were many spices), and for a time was used in lieu of currency.

    The Worshipful Company of Grocers, a Livery Company (aka Trade Guild) in London actually got its start as the Guild of Pepperers waaaay back in 1180. Their purpose, as with most guilds, was to maintaining standards for the purity of the spice and for the setting of certain weights and measures for distributing the spice. They became so good at their task with pepper that they became the Spice Guild, and then later evolved into the Grocer’s Guild.

    Black Pepper (as well as other spices) was one of the primary reasons for the search for a sea route to India. Portugal made inroads, and actually controlled the pepper trade for a while, but countries with larger, more efficient navies, as well as smuggling, forced them out rather quickly. And once technology evolved to such a point where pepper could be imported on a regular basis, prices for the spice quickly fell and pepper’s popularity further increased as it became available to markets that previously could not afford it.

    How important it Black Pepper to the spice trade? Consider this. Today, it seems rather innocuous as it sits there on your table. But it makes up 20% of today’s world spice trade. So, yeah. Black Pepper is a big deal.

    I’ll be focusing on Black Pepper recipes when time and opportunity allows. Expect a few recipes and hopefully a few more tips and stories surrounding the spice.


    Apollo, Daphne and Bay Leaves

    Apollo was a bit of an arrogant sod, and prone to bouts of his own sense of superiority. One day, after felling a mighty serpent, he came across Eros playing with his bow and arrows.

    Amused at the sight of the mere boy playing with weapons, Apollo joked “What have you to do with warlike weapons, saucy boy? Leave them for hands worthy of them. Behold the conquest I have won by means of them over the vast serpent who stretched his poisonous body over acres of plain! Be content with your torch, child, and kindle up your flames, as you call them, where you will, but presume not to meddle with my weapons.” He then showed the god of Love the snake carcass.

    Eros sighed, picked up an arrow, and shot Apollo. The arrow made the god of archery fall in love with the nymph Daphne, the daughter of the river god Peneus. Eros, being one who enjoyed a joke at Apollo’s expense, also shot an arrow into Daphne. But instead of making her fall in love with Apollo, the arrow was designed to make her repulsed by any thought of love.

    Apollo wooed Daphne as best as a god can, but she rebuffed him, and every other suitor, at every turn. Apollo’s love only increased for her, and Daphne soon feared for her own safety, as everywhere she ran, Apollo followed, possessed with the thoughts of her beauty.

    It was when he cornered her at a the river did she beg her father for help.

    “Help me, Peneus! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger!”

    Scarcely had she spoken, when a stiffness seized all her limbs; her bosom began to be enclosed in a tender bark; her hair became leaves; her arms became branches; her foot stuck fast in the ground, as a root; her face became a treetop, retaining nothing of its former self but its beauty.

    Apollo stood amazed. He touched the stem, and felt the flesh tremble under the new bark. He embraced the branches and lavished kisses on the wood. The branches shrank from his lips. “Since you cannot be my wife,” said he, “you shall assuredly be my tree. I will wear you for my crown. I will decorate you with my harp and quiver; and when the great Roman conquerors lead up the triumphal pomp to the Capitol, you shall be woven into wreaths for their brows. And, as eternal youth is mine, you also shall be always green, and your leaf know no decay.”

    The tree was what we would call the Laurus nobilis, the same tree that provides us with the Mediterranean Bay Leaf. It became one of the symbols of Apollo.The laurels that sit atop of Olympic athletes and the baccalaureate’s that college graduates receive, all are traced to this myth.

    Technorati Tags: Bay Leaves, Myths, Food History


    Bay Leaves

    In our never ending quest to read up on all things food, we’re continuing our quest for information on herbs and spices.We’ve also started to refer to ourselves in the collective, mostly because it’s way early and I’ve had no caffeine.

    Regardless, I wish to talk about Bay leaves, mostly because I know very little about them.

    There are two different types of Bay leaves in the market. There are:

    • Mediteranean Bay Leaves:Laurus nobilis Is typically found in the, say it with me now, Mediteranean area of the world. They’ve been around for quite some time, having been popular in Greece and Italy. In fact, the wreaths of laurel that adorned Olympic winners were made of these little leaves.
    • California Bay Leaves: California bay tree produces this leave and is also known as ‘California laurel’, ‘Oregon myrtle’, or ‘pepperwood’. It is similar to the Mediterranean bay, but has a stronger flavor. It’s genus name is the Umbellularia californica.

    The most common form of bay leaf as an herb is the dried whole leaf. Dried leaves are typically less bitter than those fresh off the tree.

    There’s some who think that Bay Leaves are poisonous, but this is simply not the case. Whole Bay Leaves are often removed from dishes, as the sharp edges of the leaves are reputed to cause intestinal distress.

    After having a taste, I can describe it’s flavor as a very bitter flavor, with a hint of an earthy mint tea. It’s a flavor that goes well when pared with artichokes, beet, celery root, chicken, corned beef, fish, potatoes, duck, roast pork and tomato sauce. Use them in soups, sauces, marinades and stews.

    Technorati Tags: Herbs, Bay Leaves