- Dictionary

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

A

ALLSPICE Pimenta dioica

Similar in appearance to peppercorns, but with a smoother surface. The flavor is a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Also known as Pimento and Jamaican pepper. Native to Central America and the West Indies.

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ANGELICA Angelica archangelica

Rarely used before the fifteenth century, it soon gained a reputation for protecting against evil and the plague. Today, it's most commonly used as a flavoring in liqueurs such as Strega and Benedictine.

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C

CARAWAY Carum carvi

Used as a flavoring and for medicinal purposes (a digestive aid) since Biblical times. Now used in rye bread and in liqueurs such as kummel.

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CARDAMOM Elettaria cardamomum

An aid to digestion, often used as a flavoring in mulled wines and Turkish coffee. The seed pods can be used whole, or the seeds can be removed and used on their own. Native to India.

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CHILI PEPPERS Capsicum species

The capsicum species contains many sweet and hot peppers. Most of the "hot" ones are varieties based on the cayenne pepper (C. frutescens). The hottest cultivated variety is the Habanero pepper (C. chinense) All have their origins in Central and South America. The essential oils can irritate mucous membranes and other delicate tissues.

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CINNAMON Cinnamomum zeylanicum

CASSIA Cinnamomum cassia

Both are the bark of trees of the Laurel family. Zeylanicum is native to Ceylon; Cassia is native to China. Zeylanicum is lighter, thinner, and of a finer grain than Cassia. In their flavors, Zeylanicum is the "baking" cinnamon used in pastries, while Cassia is the "hot" cinnamon used in candies. Some countries legislate that the two forms must be kept distinct; others do not. References to cinnamon go back for thousands of years, but it is not clear which type is being referred to. Herodotus claimed that cinnamon was gathered by shooting it from the nest of the phoenix with lead arrows.

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CLOVES Syzygium aromaticum

Cloves are the unopened, dried flower buds of a tree native to the Molucca Islands in the Indian Ocean. As far back as China's Han dynasty (266 BC to 220 AD) they were being used as a breath freshener. The oil has some use as an antiseptic and anaesthetic.

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COMFREY Symphytum officinale

Also known as "knitbone", since the root can be pounded into a sticky mass that can be bound around a fracture to serve as a cast when it dries. The root is still used in poultices. The plant itself is a source of vitamin B12 and protein.

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CORIANDER Coriandrum sativum

Used for thousands of years, it's one of the bitter herbs to be eaten at Passover (according to the Mishna). The seeds are used in baking, confectionery, and in liqueurs.

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CUBEB Piper cubeba

Closely related to black pepper (P. nigrum), its flavor is somewhat warmer and more mellow. Also known as "tailed pepper" because the berries often retain a short stem (which does not detract from the flavor).

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CUMIN Cuminum cyminum

Dating back to Ancient Egypt, the Romans used the seeds just as we use pepper. Flavors liqueurs like aquavit.

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E

ELDER Sambucus nigra

The elder tree has much legend and magic associated with it, often confusing and contradictory. A cross made of elder, when hung over a stable, protects the animals inside. But furniture made of elder wood brings evil. It's sacred to Hulda and Thor in Norse mythology, but another tradition says that Jesus' cross was made of elder wood. As with many other plants, it's customary to ask permission of the tree before cutting the branches. Summer is said to begin when the tree is in bloom, and end when the berries are ripe. Finally, if you sit under an elder tree on Midsummer's Eve, you will see the King of the Fairies parade by with all his entourage. The berries can be used for a dark blue dye or in liqueurs like sambucca. The flowers are used in beverages (an elderflower & peppermint tea is often used in Europe as a cold remedy).

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F

FENNEL Foeniculum vulgare

Used for two thousand years. The leaves are used in fish dishes; the seeds in liqueurs like anisette; and the roots and stalks can be boiled like a vegetable. One legend says that Prometheus brought fire to mankind by hiding coals in a fennel stalk.

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FRANKINCENSE Boswellia thurifera

Actually a plant resin that has been valuable for thousands of years as an aromatic and fixative for perfumes. In Greek mythology, Leucothea was the daughter of King Orchamus of Persia and was loved by Apollo. The nymph Clytia was jealous, so she told Orchamus about his daughter's affair. In a fit of anger, Orchamus killed Leucothea, but as she lay dying, Apollo turned her into a frankincense tree.

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G

GALINGALE Alpinia officinarum

The dried rhizome of a relative of the ginger family, it has been used in cooking as far back as Roman times. Now used primarily in alcoholic beverages, it has a strong eucalyptus-like aroma which moderates in cooking.

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GINGER Zingiber officinale

This rhizome has been used since Ancient Greece. Native to southeast Asia, it is now cultivated around the world. As with coffee and many other plant products, ginger has different characteristics depending on where it is grown. Candied ginger is useful in preventing motion sickness.

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GRAINS OF PARADISE Aframomum melegueta

Also known as melegueta pepper or Guinea grains, it's native to the Upper Niger region of Africa. A close relative of cardamom, the two seeds are similar in appearance. Its flavor is quite pungent, but it moderates with cooking.

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H

HIBISCUS Hibiscus sabdariffa

Also known as roselle, Sudanese tea, red tea, or Jamaica tea. Thanks to a tart flavor and deep red color, these flowers are very popular in teas. They can also be used in wines and preserves. A native of tropical Asia.

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HYSSOP Hyssopus officinalis

Use of this plant may go back to Biblical times. Its strong flavor limits its culinary use, but it is used in cold remedies. Legend has it hyssop is one of the ingredients that gave central European chicken soup part of its medicinal value. "Hyssop among all purging herbs is best, And frees from phlegm the overburdened chest.  When cooked with honey 'tis esteemed the chief Of balms to give the lungs complete relief."

The School of Salerno, 12th century

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J

JUNIPER Juniperus communis

Used in stews and German cooking, the roasted berries have been used as a substitute for pepper and coffee. Now it is most frequently encountered as the primary flavoring in gin.

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L

LICORICE Glycyrrhiza glabra

Its use goes back to Ancient Egypt; today it is used to treat bronchitis, ulcers, and Addison's disease. Non-medicinal uses include tobacco and snuff manufacturing, candies, and alcoholic beverages (it's one of the ingredients in Guinness). Its key component, glycyrrhizin, is about 50 times as sweet as sugar.

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LONG PEPPER Piper longum/ Piper retrofractum

A relative of black pepper, these berries grow in clusters so tight that when they are dried they become short cylinders - hence the name. P. retrofractum is the hotter of the two.  P. longum has been a frequent adulterant of black pepper. Popular today for home pickling in Europe and in curries in the Orient, They are called for in recipes for Hypocrass.

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M

MACE Myristica fragrans

The outer coating of the nutmeg seed, its flavor is naturally similar. When German Emperor Henry VI was crowned in 1191, mace was one of the spices strewn in the streets to make his route smell nice.

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MARJORAM Origanum majorana

Very closely related to oregano. O. majorana is specifically sweet marjoram, and is also known botanically as Majorana hortensis. "Pot marjoram" is Majorana onites, and Wild marjoram is actually oregano (O. vulgare). Widely used in cooking, but should be added only at the last minute since its delicate flavor dissipates quickly.

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MUSTARD Brassica nigra

This variety is specifically black mustard; there are many other varieties that are also in use. The Greeks claimed it was discovered by the legendary physician Aesclepius. In cultivation for over two thousand years. The characteristic hot flavor is due to a reaction between chemicals in the seeds and water, and the yellow color comes from the essential oil.

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MYRRH Commiphora molmol

Used primarily in perfumes and incense, it is a dried plant resin. Named after Myrrha, the daughter of King Cinyrus of Cyprus and the mother of Adonis. With slight astringent and antiseptic properties, it is used in some tooth powders and as a mouthwash.

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N

NIGELLA Nigella sativa

Also known as black cumin or fitch (its Biblical name). Widely cultivated throughout the Middle East, the seeds are used like pepper or on breads. According to an Arab proverb, "in the black seed is medicine for every disease except death." Used in Ethiopia to flavor alcoholic beverages.

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NUTMEG Myristica fragrans

It has been used as a general tonic. According to Malay legend, in order to thrive the tree must be planted where it can hear the sea and be fed with animal food. NOTE: Nutmeg contains myristicin, a psychotropic drug similar to mescaline. Use with great care, as even moderate doses can cause reactions from disorientation to convulsions.

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P

PEPPER Piper nigrum

Arguably the most important spice of all time. When Alaric the Visigoth was threatening to sack Rome in 408, part of his payoff was 3,000 pounds of pepper. Pepper was often used as a medium of exchange, since it held its value better than coinage (the term "peppercorn rent" is related to this).

Black, white, and green peppercorns all come from the same plant; the different colors are due to when the berries are harvested and how they are processed. Pink pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius) and Szechuan pepper (Xanthophyllum piperitum) are berries from unrelated plants. Medieval legend said that pepper trees were native to Armenia (actually, they are native to southern India) where their forests were filled with poisonous serpents. To drive the serpents away, the forest was set on fire. The pepper berries absorbed the heat of the fire (that's how they got their taste) and were burned black by it.

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POUDRE FORTE

Meaning "strong powder", it is one of five spice blends mentioned in medieval sources. Others include "poudre blanche" (white powder) and "poudre douce" (sweet powder). Exact recipes for Poudre Forte are rare; our blend of cubebs, cloves, mace, nutmeg, ginger, black pepper, grains of paradise, cinnamon, and cassia is based on spices mentioned in addition to poudre forte in recipes as well as kitchen research. It serves as an "all-purpose" blend, and can be used in anything from meatloaf to apple pie.

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R

ROSEHIPS Rosa canina

The fruit of the wild rose, they are rather tart and are a good source of Vitamin C. They are commonly used in teas and conserves.

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S

SAFFRON Crocus sativa

Saffron threads are the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus. It takes around 225,000 stigmas to get a pound of saffron (about 250 flowers for one pennyweight). Cultivated in Europe since the ninth century, severe penalties were often imposed for adulterating it. Used in cooking for coloring as well as flavor.

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SAGE Salvia officinalis

One of the most important medicinal herbs; an Arab proverb says "How can a man die when he has sage in his garden?" The plant has been cultivated for thousands of years.

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SANDERS Pterocarpus santalinus

Sanders is powdered red sandalwood, which is primarily used as a coloring and dye. It does have a delicate aroma and flavor.

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T

TANSY Tanacetum vulgare

Traditionally used as an insect repellent, the dried flower tops have also been used in "tansy cakes", a type of pancake traditionally eaten during Lent when its bitter taste was a reminder of Jesus' suffering. Also used as a treatment for intestinal worms.

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THYME Thymus vulgaris

There are a large number of varieties of thyme, many of which are used for ornamental purposes. Has some medicinal value as an antiseptic. Widely used in cooking, as well as some liqueurs like Benedictine. "To smell of thyme" is a commendation.

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TURMERIC Curcuma longa

A relative of ginger, it used to be just as important. The key ingredient in curry powder, it is also used as a dyestuff. Although its color is like that of saffron, it should not be used as a substitute.

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V

VANILLA Vanilla planifolia

The vanilla bean is the seed pod of an orchid native to Mexico. Cultivated with difficulty in other tropical regions, since the insect that pollinates the flower is a Mexican native that has not been relocated with the flower. The beans can be pricked before harvest to brand them as a means of verifying their origin. The essential oil, vanillin, has been synthesized - but as with many things the natural flavor is superior.

Commentary by Spicemaster - Lord Richard the Poor