We look at the life saving properties of spices that also improve our food and we have a recipe or two to spice up the tale. The first evidence we have of the use of spices is dated to around 50,000 BC. The spice trade was alreadly developed by 2,000 BC and the Egyptians’ need for exotic herbs triggered world trade. The Bible tells how Joseph was sold to spice merchants and how Solomon, in his famous poem, the Song of Solomon compares his love to a range of spices. In the Middle Ages it was the Republic of Venice (800 – 1500 AD) that had the monopoly on the spice trade and it with a few of the other Italian
city states pretty much had the monopoly on the spice trade with the Middle East – and they became enormously wealthy in the process. It’s a misconception that medieval chefs used copious amounts of spices to disguise the taste of spoilt meat – the Venetians and the Arabs had an enormous influence in culinary circles and they would certainly have pushed the spice route. Over and above that, a medieval dinner party had to display the host’s wealth and there was always a wide selection of fresh or preserved meats, fish or seafood to choose from – rotten meat would only have embarassed the host.
Ginger is a rhizome (an underground stem) from the Zingiber officinale that originated in South East Asia. One of the first spices used in Europe, the Romans learnt about it from the Greeks who bought it from the Arab traders. The younger rhizomes are juicy and fleshy with quite a mild taste, often found pickled in vinegar (or sherries) and used in many dishes all over the world. Ginger tea has very useful antiseptic qualities and can even be really helpful in mild cases of food poisoning. It reduces gases, helps digestion and is very useful in preventing sea-sickness, relieving inflammation, reducing swelling of joints and actually relieving pain whilst improving mobility. This very powerful anti-oxidant, effective against flu, fights off a host of viruses. More importantly, it’s widely used in Indian and Chinese cooking in both savoury and sweet dishes. China is the biggest producer of ginger in the world, followed by India, Indonesia and Nigeria.
MY GREAT GRAND MOTHER’S GINGERBREAD
- 250 g all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- 75 g butter, softened
- 125 g caster sugar
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 tsp ground dried ginger (or 1 heaped tablespoon fresh)
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- ¼ tsp ground cloves
- 1 ½ tbsps milk
- Whisk butter, sugar, honey, spices and bicarbonate of soda with an electric mixer until well mixed.
- Gradually add the milk and about a tablespoon of water with the flour until a firm dough is formed.
- Shape the dough into a smooth ball and wrap in cling wrap to refrigerate for about 1 ½ hours.
- Pre heat oven to 180 C and grease and line a baking tray with greaseproof baking paper.
- Roll out the gingerbread dough on a lightly floured surface until it is about 2 mm thick.
- Use a large soup plate and cut out a big circle after which you cut the dough into equal wedges.
- Separate the wedges and put onto the tray so that you can bake each batch of wedges for about 10 to 12 minutes.
- Remove and allow to cool completely on a rack.
- They last for about a week in a properly sealed container.
Turmeric gives curries their distinctive yellow colour and Hindu brides sometimes paint it on their faces. It has anti-inflammatory properties and can be helpful for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. Experts say that it certainly reduces early morning stiffness in those cases as effectively as anti-inflammatory drugs. Research has found that it is potentially helpful for both cancer prevention and treatment as it has been shown to reduce colon cancer as well as suppressing the growth of tumours. It helps the liver detoxify cancer causing foods like barbecued meat and excessive smoke. It supports liver function by keeping bile more soluble, which in turn, helps to prevent gall stones. Used in Indian food, Malay food, sauces, desserts in all spicy food from all over the world for colour and flavour!
Cinnamon, arguably the most popular spice in the world is the dried inner bark of an evergreen tree from the cinnamomum family (the best of the best comes from the cinnamomum zeylanicum tree found in Sri Lanka). It is picked in the rainy season when the bark is still pliable. Five thousand or so years ago the Arabs controlled the spice routes and they brought it from the spice islands to sell in Ninevah, Babylon, Egypt and Rome. It’s often mentioned in the Bible and has religious meaning in all faiths all over the world. In ancient times in Arabia, when the first bundle was gathered it was offered to the sun god. It aids digestion, helps to soothe the gastrointestinal tract, reduce spasms, activates insulin and glucose transport and improves glucose metabolism and has even been proved to support healthy blood sugar levels. It has been used in food from every single category and has to be the most versatile spice there is. This mousse has to be the most basic and simple mousse and is a delicious, rich and luxurious addition to the menu. It can be made without the egg white for a richer dessert.
CINNAMON WHITE CHOCOLATE MOUSSE
- 3 x 100 g Lindt white chocolates
- 375 ml whipping cream
- 2 t vanilla paste
- 2 egg whites
- Place the chocolate in a pan of simmering water and melt until the chocolate is smooth.
- Whisk the egg whites until it reaches soft peak stage and similarly whisk the cream until it, also, reaches soft peak stage stirring in the vanilla as you go.
- Add the whisked melted chocolate into the cream mixture very gently after which you fold in the egg whites, using a metal spoon.
- Spoon the mixture into chocolate or ginger flutes and allow to cool (but not in the refrigerator)!
- Serve with syrupy Cape gooseberries, cranberries or candied sugar.
Cloves are the rich, brown, dried, unopened flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum. Clove trees are native to the famous Spice islands (nowadays called Indonesia) and is today harvested in Madagascar, Panang, Ceylon, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Malaysia. The Chinese were trading with Ternate (today called Gamalama) at least 2,500 years ago and Arab traders brought cloves back to Europe around 400 AD. Widely used in food today it is imported from Zanzibar where it is a capital offence to smuggle out! We can thank the Brits, who established plantations there in the 1800’s, for this glorious spice. Strongly aromatic, containing the volatile oil, eugenol, which has analgesic properties, it has long been used to relieve toothache. Some dentists even use clove oil after dental extraction nowadays!!! Useful against infection, worms, fungal infections (including athletes foot) and said to be an aphrodisiac cloves are commonly used all over the world today!
Fennel seeds are the oval, green or yellowish brown dried fruit of Foeniculum vulgare, a member of the parsley family. Native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean area the leaves are widely used in fish dishes, deserts and I even use it in some egg dishes. The name comes from the Greek word for marathon because the famous battle at Marathon (490 BC) against the Persians was fought on a field of Fennel. Pliny said that snakes casting off their skins ate Fennel to restore their eyesight. Early Greeks believed in its slimming properties. In India they are given after a meal toasted and coated in sugar. As an addition to fish (marinades and crusts for grilling and baking) it has become very fashionable in modern cuisine all around the world. The breath freshening and digestive properties making it the perfect after dinner sweet since it reduces flatulence as well. In closing, it is interesting to note that it increases the production of breast milk too!
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum) comes from Central and Southern America as well as the Middle East. Cayenne Pepper is made from the dried pods of pungent chili peppers. It’s hot, flavoursome and perfect to add heat to a tortilla de patatas, egg custards and wonderful in chocolate truffles and biscuits! Used widely in Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East. For ridding your house of rats put a heaped tablespoon in a pan over low heat and it will give off fumes both rats and cockroaches loathe! From a health perspective, it improves circulation and is excellent as a topical pain reliever. Make a cream and it will help to relieve arthritis, rheumatism and shingles because it stimulates the release of endorphins which are the bodies natural pain killers.