Monday, December 05, 2011

Four Spices of Christmas

There's a Lovely Scent in the Kitchen at Christmas Time.......

kitchen, Hjerle Hede, Open Air Museum, Jutland

baking oven, Stone Age, Hjerle Hede.

A very special scent during Chistmas time is the aroma of clove, vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom. Most of the spices we use today- and especially around Christmas - origin from the Far East, one of the reasons why the Arabs during the Middle Ages and later the Dutch grew very rich on the spice trade. The Arabs dominated the world's spice trade from the eleventh century while the Dutch were the dominating part about six centuries later. For hundreds of years spices were so expensive that only rich people could afford them. They were kept in a locked box to which only the lady of the house had the important key in her bunch of keys. Today spices are available to everyone, and especially around Christmas the kitchen is a place with a lovely scent that fills the whole house.

Clove/Nellike/Eugenia caryophyllata
Clove is dried flower buds from an evergreen tree, originally from a group of islands, the Moluccas, but it is also cultivated in other tropic places. Clove was one of the first spices arriving in Europe. It came with the Portuguese after the discovery of the sea route to India.

The custom placing clove in an orange derives from the nineteenth century where people placed the clove-covered orange in the closet to make their clothes smell good. Today we often hang the clove-orange in a red silken band at Christmas. It is best to cover the orange in full with cloves. In this way the orange will not rotten, but will be completely conserved and continue to spread its delicious scent in the room for a long time.

Many lard the pork roast with whole clove, it is also good in a roasted smoked ham, eventually finished with a mustard glazing, a custom for the Swedish Christmas-Ham. Clove has a very strong taste and is easy to overdose. It has to be used with care and suit the other spices in a dish.

Grounded clove is used for baking, in various delicatessen, in Christmas cookies and in many sorts of spiced cakes. It is perfect in fruit dishes and stewed fruit and gives a perfect finishing touch on apple-pies. Grounded clove is also a good spice in strong soups and sauces - or two whole cloves put into an onion to boil it together with the dish. Whole clove is especially fine in vinegar pickling and in green pickled tomatoes, hips, pumpkins and plums - and it is indespensable together with the other good spices in the Christmas Punch (Juleglögg).

Old advice: Spice oil rubbed upon a sore tooth is said to remove the worst pain - and chewing a couple of whole cloves is said to reduce the urge for alcohol.

Vanilla/Vanilje/Vanilla planifolia 
Vanilla comes originally from Mexico. The Totonaco-Indians were the first to use it - they considered it a gift from the gods. Later the Azteks used it in chocolat. In the 1500s the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortez brought vanilla to Spain from where it spread throughout Europe, but in the beginning vanilla was used mainly in cocoa-drinks. Not until around 1600 vanilla became an independent spice. The first time vanilla is mentioned in Denmark was in 1770 in a book about Natural history.

The biggest production today comes from Madagaskar. The vanilla-sticks are dried seed capsules from a tropical orchid, vanilla planifolia. The fine flavouring is extracted in a complicated process, and the genuine vanilla is rather expensive. Bourbon vanilla is considered the best , followed by Tahiti-vanilla. A good vanilla-stick has to be dark, soft and lustrous. The seeds and the fruit pulp is scraped out from the vanilla-stick and used in creme, icecreme, fruit-dishes, baking, pickled green tomatoes and pumpkins.

Vanilla sugar is made from vanilla seeds and sugar. Vanilla-essence is sold in small bottles and easy to dose. The empty vanilla-stick keeps the scent for a long time - put it in the sugar jar, and the sugar can be used as vanilla-sugar. The vanilla-stick can also be halved and cooked in milk for pudding - or simmer with the milk for hot cocoa. This spice is indispensable in the dessert-kitchen like the salt is in the salt-kitchen. Vanilla brings out the taste from other ingredienses like salt.

Vanilla-stick is a usual spice in desserts and cakes, but also delicious in general baking and a thrilling spice in hot dishes, where it is not expected, fx in poultry together with orange, basil and onion.  All over the world is vanilla used in cakes, icecreme and candy. In Mexico it is also used in sauces - and in Paris in perfumes. But the sweet and strong taste of vanilla is good for more than cookies and desserts, it is useful in sauces and fish soups, since it brings out the full taste of the whole dish. The lovely scent of vanilla is easy to recognize - it always brings good memories of Christmas time.

Cinnamon/Kanel/Cinnamomum zeylanicum.
The best and the most expensive cinnamon is from Sri Lanka. The spice is the bark from a tree, which after peeling and drying rolls together into a little reed. Another cinnamon species is the Cassia-cinnamon, which derives from China and mainly is cultivated there. The genuine cinnamon from Sri Lanka is easy to recognize, since the reed is light brown and in more layers, while the Cassia-cinnamon-reed is dark brown and only has one layer.

Cinnamon was known as a spice for thousands of years. In the Old testament cinnamon is mentioned as the most distinguished of all spices and a gift for gods and princes. The Chinese knew cinnamon about 4-7.000 years ago - it is mentioned in the earliest Chinese herbal books. The Chinese call it "kwei" - and it is mentioned in the Chinese emperor's herbal book from ab. 2.700 b.c. and again in the herbal book "Rha-ya" from ab. 1.200 b.c. Cinnamon came to Eruope in the 1400s.

Cinnamon is  used for adding a fine sweet taste to hot buns, fruitcakes and raisin-apple dishes and spiced wine. Both whole cinnamon-reed and grounded cinnamon are used, the grounded cinnamon mostly for baking purpose. Cinnamon is also used in stewed fruit and in various pickling - and for the Christmas punch, (juleglögg) and toddy.

Grounded cinnamon is perfect in apple pie and mixed with sugar strewed upon the rice porridge. A mix of grounded cinnamon, nutmeg and clove is often used in spiced bread and cakes, and the same mix is good in a dish with fat meat. But cinnamon can also give a fine effect in fish dishes and fried meat dishes. In India cinnamon is commonly used in meat- and rice dishes and as an ingrediense in the spice mix garam masala and curry-mix.

An old advice: Cinnamon prevents wind in the stomach. And if people strewed cinnamon and cardamom upon a buttered roast piece of bread it was a good means against indigestion.


Cardamom/Kardemomme/ Elettaria cardamomum  
Cardamom are the seeds from a tropical plant from India. The small seeds are inside triangular capsules , they are dried and used either whole or grounded. The grounded cardamom is the cheapest, but there is a grounded variety called "decorticated", made from the seeds only.

Cardamom is fine together with orange and lemon, either in cakes or in various orange-desserts, and it is an important ingrediense in curry mix and in garam masala. An extra additon of cardamom to a curry dish brings out the good taste. The spice is also a good ingrediense in forcemeat for poultry, eventual with parsley. But only in small quantities.

Commonly used in yeast bread, spiced cakes, apple dessert, panncakes, patés, and as mentioned also in oriental curry dishes and in some forcemeat dishes with parsley. In Scandinavia and in Russia cardamom is used for promoting the taste of Liqueur, and in the Middle East coffee is made tasty and spicy with a couple of cardamom-seeds. Some spiced buns (Krydderboller) with cardamom are very popular in Denmark.

Through 3.000 years cardamom was used in Chinese medicine. It was imported to Greece in the 4th century b.c. and was later used by Greek physicians. The English herbalist William Cole described in the 1700s cardamom as the "seed above all seeds" and told that it removed a phlegmatic temper, both from head and stomach.

Hjerle Hede photo: grethe bachmann
Spice photo: grethe bachmann and stig bachmann nielsen,

12 comments: said...

nice blog, congrat

Wanda..... said...

I have a potpourri made of most of these spices, in a pottery bowl my son-in-law made, I especially appreciate it at Christmas.

Thyra said...

Thank you for visiting catalin!

Hej Wanda! This is such a great idea! I'll try to make a mix like that. This must bring a lovely Chrismas scent to the house.
Thank you for the inspiration!
Grethe ´)

Joan said...

I am envious of your Winter Christmas. It is becoming very warm here in NZ. I have lots to catch up on your blog. I've been missing because family were home from overseas.

Thyra said...

Hej Joan! Please send me some warmth from New Zealand! Today is a storm and the rain is whipping the windows. "No weather for man nor beast" like W.C.Fields' saying !
I have enjoyed your posts from Italy very much. Venice is so beautiful.
Grethe ´)

Kittie Howard said...

Christmas is perfect for the senses, but especially for the scents. Oh, but to walk into a home and follow one's nose into the kitchen! A beautiful post, Grethe! (Sorry about that storm, but no snow here; will write to the kitchen to prepare dinner, shrimp tonight.)

Thyra said...

Hej Kittie! Thank you! You're in the kitchen now, baking cakes, and I'm busy writing! Finish Sunday-Monday I hope ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~!!
Grethe ´)

Gerry Snape said...

I can almost smell the spices...this is one of my favourite parts of the season....especially in Mulled wine!

Thyra said...

Hej Gerry!
Yes! I love that spicy wine too. This is really bringing me in a Christmas mood!
Grethe ´)

shoreacres said...

Ah, Grethé,

Finally I have come here after seeing you at Jack Matthews' blog, and I suspected your part of the world, even before I read it, from seeing the spices blog. Cinnamon, clove and nutmeg are common to many, but cardamom? I grew up with the spice in my Swedish household, and love it dearly.

Both my paternal grandfather and grandmother came from south of Stockholm in the early 1900s, but separately. They met in Minnesota, married, and moved to Iowa.

I'm nearly the only one of a large family left now - but when Christmas comes, it comes with pickled herring, sylta, candles in the window, Lucia buns and - cardamom! Thanks for such a lovely, informative entry about traditions dear to me!

Thyra said...

Hello shoreacres ! Thank you for visiting my blog. I think it's interesting that you keep the old food customs with sylta and herring and the buns with cardamom. Cardamom buns taste heavenly! And I love sylta! (Lots of calories!) I guess you're making it yourself.
It's sad to be the only one left from a large family, it's the same for me now, I'm alone with my son, but it's good to have the memories, and they are especially strong at Christmas.
Grethe ´)

Thyra said...

To a sour blogger.
My blog-friends know that I always give a reply to a comment, but if someone unknown to me writes me an arrogant and not very civil comment I shall not answer this and your comment will be deleted.
Grethe B.