Monday, January 23, 2012

The Spice of Life.

I would not enjoy cooking half as much, without spices. How about you? It occurred to me that there are many spices that have not had their day on this blog, so this week I have selected a few for our joint consumption. 

Firstly, what is a spice? According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is ‘one or other of various strongly flavoured or aromatic substances of vegetable origin, obtained from tropical plants, commonly used as condiments or employment for other purposes on account of their fragrance and preservative qualities.’

Interesting, that the OED includes the supposed preservative qualities of spices. Has this ever been borne out by science? I don’t think so. The definition no doubt derives from the belief that ‘curry’ is a way of preserving meat in hot climates – and/or disguising the taste if it has already spoiled. I don’t know how this idea ever got established. If it were true, there would be no rationale for the adoption of heavily spiced dishes in cold climates. There would be no need for spicy hot ale posset or gingerbread in mid-winter Europe. There would have been no impetus for the hazardous and expensive voyages of exploration and other imperial thrusts towards the spice lands of the mysterious East. ‘Curry’ would not be almost the national favourite dish in England.

There is no nutritional drive for added flavour. Aside from the possible medical benefits of some spices (a ‘watch this space’ region if ever there was one), spices add flavour, not nutritional value. A piece of cinnamon toast has barely any more calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates or vitamins than plain toast (with a sprinkle of sugar on it) but my goodness, its smell is more likely to lure you back into the kitchen, isn’t it?

Humans like warm, sweet, aromatic, peppery, gingery, hot, complex spicy flavours. That is the sum of it. Humans have been so fond of fragrant, spicy dishes that they have been prepared to risk life, limb, and the national economy to ensure their fix. Historically, humans have been willing to spend years crossing treacherous oceans aboard fragile ships, and dangerous deserts aboard ill-tempered camels, in the hope of making vast amounts of money by finding spices to sell to home-bodies hungry for tasty, spicy, fragrant, stews, soups, cakes, pies, sauces, beverages and whatever else you can think of.

To start our week I give you a couple of nice, non-threatening spicy dishes from The Suffrage Cook Book (Pittsburgh, 1915), by Mrs. L.O.Kleber.

Spice Pie
The yolks of three eggs, one and one-half cupfuls of sugar, one cupful of cream, two tablespoons of flour, two-thirds of a cupful of butter, one teaspoon of spice, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Mix the flour and sugar together, then cream with the butter. Add the yolks of the eggs, beating thoroughly. Next add cream and spices. Use the whites for the frosting.

Inexpensive Spice Cake
 ½ cup shortening
2 cups brown sugar
grated rind of lemon
2 eggs
3 cups flour
1 lb. seeded raisins
½ teaspoon cinnamon
dash of cloves and nutmeg
Boil raisins in 1 ½ cups water twenty minutes.
Mix shortening, sugar, lemon rind, eggs and spices, add one cup flour then raisins drained but still hot. Then the other two cups flour and ½ cup of the water in which the raisins were boiled to which add 1 teaspoon bi-carbonate soda.
Bake in gem pans in moderate oven. This makes 30 cakes which can be iced with white or chocolate icing.

Quotation for the Day.
A man all Vertue, like a Pye all Spice, will not please.
J. Crowne, Regulus: a tragedy (1694)


Unknown said...

Actually there have been studies which have found antimicrobial properties in spices, particularly cinnamon and clove. The essential oils seem to be where the preservative properties lie. Food spoils in even cold climates, just less quickly.
I did a quick Google Scholar search for the phrase "spices preservative"

darius said...

"Spice Pie" is half a recipe... no clues how to cook it??

LoveOrchids said...

Where did I read that men find cinnamon to be a very erotic scent? Something about Mom and Apple Pie, all that nurturing? I love to try out new spices. I read the Penzey's catalogue like its a magazine.

Don Pontious said...

Love your blog, very much, as I am interested in pre-industrial food preparation and preservation.

I have noted, in my researches of the Middle Ages, that spices were prized for being able to cover the taste of "turned" or rancid meat. That is being abler to make a rancid bit much more palatable. Could this be where the assumed "preservative" qualities of spices came from? Could it be concluded that adding spices to a salt brine for corning, the folk back then thought the added flavors enhanced the preservative qualities of the corning mix? It would be interesting to find out.

Again, love the blog! Keep up the good work!

Unknown said...

I imagine that the 'preservative' qualities they have in mind is probably just a reference to the antibacterial properties of some spices (cumin, for example). I don't imagine it would actually so much preserve the foods as perhaps just stave off the bacterial critters for a little while! :)