MY FIRST SPICY CHRISTMAS MEMORY was of sticking cloves in an orange in Sunday school. While I’ve never discovered the significance of that Advent exercise, I do know peppermint candy canes, scented candles and especially the office party punchbowl add zest to the holidays. Our recent batch of spice cookies, featuring cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, was rather lost on me due to my middle-age allergies, but I still find fascinating all the scents and seasonings the plant world provides.
Pumpkin pie, that most Yankee of desserts, would be rather bland without a West Indies native called Pimenta dioica. Just who discovered that the fruits of this tree could be ground and eaten is lost to history, but the English thought the powder tasted like a combination of cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and nutmeg and called it allspice. Once traders got their mitts on allspice, it traveled the world over and become a staple flavor in dozens of far-flung cultures. Caribbean cuisine adds it to jerk seasoning, mole sauces and pickling. In the Middle East, it is often found in stews and meat dishes, while in Germany commercial sausage-makers rely on it. The British like it in desserts, while Ohioans claim their Cincinnati chili just isn’t right without it. Interestingly, allspice can also be used as a deodorant: could that be the inspiration behind the Old Spice I used to give my dad?
I know anise from the Norwegian krumkake cookies my grandmother made for Christmas; if I was Italian it would have been pizzelles, or German, pfeffernusse. Anise, or Pimpinella ansium, is an herbaceous plant growing to three feet, native to the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia. The small fruits have a distinctive scent and flavor similar to liquorice, fennel and tarragon. If anise-flavored cookies don’t do it for you, there are stronger alternatives; anise is an ingredient in the liquors absinthe, anisette, pastis, Jagermeister and raki. Years ago, I tried but never learned to drink anise-flavored sambuca with my Italian friends after a meal, perhaps because I thought my cookie-toting granny was watching.
Nutmeg may be the spice with the most turbulent history. Seeds of the tree Myristica fragrans yield both nutmeg and mace, and were native only to the Banda Islands, a remote chain in the Indian Ocean. Arab traders kept the source secret for centuries as they sold these spices to Europeans for astronomical prices. In 1512, the brave and crafty Portuguese explorer Afonso de Albuquerque learned of nutmeg’s source and sent three ships to the islands. While a trade developed, the Bandanese people still retained control. Later, the Dutch took over, but their reign was challenged by the Bandanese and the English; war, massacre, and exodus ensued. At one point the Dutch gave the English control of Manhattan in exchange for tiny Run Island and its nutmeg. Later still, the Brits came in again, took trees to Grenada and Zanzibar, and broke the nutmeg monopoly.
All so we could put some nutmeg in our eggnog.