When the Christmas tree comes in a box that gets stored in the garage, the cookies come hermetically sealed from a factory and the open fire appears crackling on your flat panel screen, take back the visceral connection to your holidays with the fragrance of spices.
This is the first year I have ever had an artificial Christmas tree and the house just doesn't smell like Christmas. Most of us have favorite Christmas smells; here, I offer my top five Christmas flavors. Do you agree with my choices? I have read that between 70% and 95% of what we experience as taste is actually provided by our sense of smell. It makes sense, then, that these five Christmas flavors are as much smells as they are tastes; they are sensory experiences. Taking them in alphabetical order, let's start with Allspice, then Cinnamon, Cloves, Ginger and Nutmeg/Mace. Least familiar to an American Christmas, the first runner-up is the all-American flavor of Allspice. The dried fruit of the Pimenta dioica tree, this one is, interestingly, native to the Americas. (Maybe that's why it's left out in holiday recipes that are older than this country.) If you do omit the Allspice, you might not be able to put your finger on exactly what's missing, but it's Allspice. The fruit of the female trees (as you might expect, with a name like dioica, the male and female flowers are on separate plants) are picked when green and unripe and dried in the sun, says McCormick. Pimenta dioica was found growing on Jamaica by Christopher Columbus. To the fifteenth century Europeans, it tasted like a mixture of the valuable Eastern spices Clove, Nutmeg and Cinnamon, so they called it 'all spices' or Allspice. "The principle oil extracted from Allspice is eugenol, the same oil extracted from Cloves," says tradewindsfruit.com. Look for Allspice in apple and pumpkin pies, but also in roast pork, any Jamaican or Caribbean "jerk" recipe, meat stews, barbecue sauce or any recipe where you would find its complement, Cinnamon. There are also several fragrant but unrelated plants such as Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus) which have borrowed the "Allspice" moniker because they reminded someone of all spicy smells.
Cinnamon has been valued by humankind for thousands and thousands of years. It is mentioned frequently in the Hebrew Bible, was used in embalming in Egypt, and was traded in Ancient Greece. While it may have originated on the Spice Island, Molucca, it grows readily in other tropical sites, especially the southern part of the Asian continent and the Caribbean. As you probably know, the powdered spice we cook with or mix with sugar is ground from bark, from one of several genera of Cinnamomum. Please read Jill's engaging article for more information. Eugenol is a component of Cinnamon too. Everyone knows the Cinnamon flavor from things like Cinnamon gum (Dentyne™), red hot candy, Cinnamon raisin bread or Cinnamon raisin bagels. Try Cinnamon on oatmeal or in coffee.
There is a species, Canella winterana, which is native to the North American continent, and called Wild Cinnamon or Cinnamon Bark. It was remarked on by the naturalist in Columbus' second voyage. Rolls of Cinnamon bark are pictured in the thumbnail picture, courtesy of Charles Haynes of Flickr.
Clove: Syzygium aromaticum (formerly called Eugenia aromaticum) is a tree which can grow 40 feet tall but cannot survive below 50° F. All parts of the tree—leaves, bark, and flowers—are extremely aromatic, but it is the unopened flower buds which are the Cloves used in cooking. Cloves also contain eugenol (named after the old species name); in fact, the oil obtained from Cloves is 70-90% eugenol. Clove oil was historically used as an oral analgesic and is still an important ingredient in, for instance, Clove cigarettes or Clove chewing gum. Cloves are also used in Pomander Balls.
Clove is another spice where a little bit goes a long way; I wouldn't make a beef stew without a whole Clove stuck into an onion, but you really don't want to be the person who bites into the whole Clove! My daughter actually did bite into a whole Clove once which I had baked into cookies, since I was out of ground Clove. To this day, even the smell makes her tongue numb, she says.
Ginger: Perhaps you stir-fry Asian-style vegetables using fresh Ginger root. To me, Ginger means gingerbread houses and gingerbread men. Ginger or ginger root is the rhizome of the plant , consumed as a delicacy, medicine, or spice. It lends its name to its genus and family Zingiberaceae. The cultivation of Ginger root began in Southeast Asia and spread from there. Although Ginger is the dominant spice in, say, ginger ale, ginger beer or ginger snaps, its more subtle presence is required in other holiday foods like pumpkin pie. (Pumpkin pie spice contains Cinnamon, Allspice, Nutmeg, Ginger, Mace and Cloves, according to McCormick.com, a terribly interesting site for me at this time of year). All ginger is harvested by hand, says McCormick. To grow your own Ginger, see this article and to make ginger beer, click here.
Nutmeg, and its sibling, Mace, are both derived from a tree called Myristica fragrans. It bears a fruit the size of an apricot, and the pit is Nutmeg. Nutmeg is the signature taste of egg nogs (which aren't even made with eggs any more). Nutmeg is also a key flavor in custards, French toast, pumpkin pies, quiches and some say, cake doughnuts.
The Nutmeg pit (pictured right) is covered with a lacy, thin, red skin which is dried and ground into the spice Mace. While Mace is not a common spice for most of us (I'll bet you can't summon its fragrance to mind), you probably would miss it if it suddenly disappeared. Mace is an important flavoring for apple and pumpkin pies, and it seasons sausage and meatloaf. Traditional recipes taste okay if you leave out the Mace, but the food won't taste wonderful. Instead of adding more salt or even MSG, turn to Mace instead.
Cloves and Nutmeg/Mace come from the same part of the world, the so-called Spice islands, which had such influence over the course of human history! It was searching for these precious spices that had Europeans wandering east and west and fighting each other. That's why the Dutch gave the British the island of New Amsterdam, in exchange for the Indonesian island of Molucca (or Moluka) where Nutmeg grows. So now we have New York instead, and we can buy spices at the grocery store.
Two other holiday sensory delights are oranges and peppermint, neither of which is a spice. Peppermint is a Old World herb (like other mints) which flavors foods, drinks and candy, heals certain maladies and perfumes with its cleansing bouquet. Of course, candy canes are traditionally flavored with peppermint. Add a candy cane to your coffee or hot chocolate, or sprinkle crushed candy canes on top of cookies.
Oranges were cultivated in China as early as 2500 BC and made their way westward, both as marmalade and citrus-flavored preserves, but also as fresh twigs which were planted, first in the Mediterranian region and then along sailors' trade routes to prevent scurvy. By the end of the 19th century, oranges were in plentiful supply in Florida, Arizona and California. The trans-continental railway, completed in 1869, made sure that middle class children all over the country could have an orange in their Christmas stocking. Make a Pomander Ball by sticking Cloves into an orange or drink some Constant Comment™ tea to spice up your holiday.
Incidentally, for the freshest, most flavorful spices, use them in the closest to original form possible. Grate your own Nutmeg (they even sell Nutmeg in a little grater now), use whole Cloves and whole Cinnamon. Mace and Allspice are more difficult to grind yourself, but fresh Ginger is available in the produce section at almost any big grocery store and is no more diffcult to cook with than Garlic. So, if you're feeling a little nostalgic, a little misty-eyed for the Christmas the way it used to be, add some spices. Bake a pie; even if you use a pre-made crust and filling from a can, add Cinnamon, Allspice, Nutmeg, Ginger, Mace and Cloves.
PICTURE OF NUTMEG WITH MACE MADE AVAILABLE BY WIKIMEDIA BY Brocken Inaglory. Cinnamon (Charles Haynes) in thumbnail, cloves (zoyachubby) and ginger (andresmh) available through Creative Commons.
About Carrie Lamont
Carrie clicks on EVERY link. She has two beautiful daughters, and has been married for twelve delightful years. Her husband works for an airline, facilitating Carrie's frequent need to travel. She has a masters degree in Music, and hums to herself as she gazes out wistfully at her full-sun containers from her air-conditioned interior. Carrie just moved from Massachusetts to Texas and is still recovering.