What I learned about spice origins in St. Lucia blew my mind!
I grew up in the midwestern United States. My parents, however, are British so my upbringing wasn’t the local norm. English people use a limited number of spices. They may grow Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme in their gardens. They are unlikely to grow Oregano or Basil as they are, according to my relatives, foreign perversions for garlicky foreign dishes. Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and vanilla extract have a large place in English cooking but their origin begins and ends in the shop as either a brown powder or dark liquid.
A few years ago my husband and I took a trip to St. Lucia for some SCUBA. The reefs in St. Lucia are all protected, amazing, and you are required to dive with a Dive Master. We usually do as a Dive Master knows the area and takes you to the best spots making him or her well worth the investment. Our dive master on this trip astonished me by telling us about all the spices he grows on his little farm. I was thinking green spices but NO he grows cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace. Now I am not so ignorant as to imagine the little spice jars hanging on the tree but I had no idea what the raw spices looked like. To be honest I had never really thought about it. As a cook who loves food, I was excited to learn all about the spices. Between dives, I learned a lot.
Cinnamon is tree bark. It is not the exterior bark but the interior bark.
“Joys of Quang Ngai farmers in the cinnamon harvest.” VietNam Breaking News. N.p., 27 May 2016. Web. 01 May 2017.
This video demonstrates how the harvesting was described to me. Smithsonian Magazine Video
Nutmeg and Mace
Nutmeg plants have been introduced in most tropical countries where suitable climatic and soil conditions exist and in the West Indies along with St. Vincent and Trinidad, other countries where nutmegs have been introduced include St. Lucia, Dominica, Jamaica, Montserrat, Martinique, and Guadeloupe.
The nutmeg is the kernel inside the seed of the nutmeg tree fruit. The fruit is allowed to mature and breaks open along the seam of the fruit and falls to the ground. The seed is covered by the red aril which is ground up into what we know as Mace. Harvest happens both January to March and June to August and every two or three days throughout the rest of the year. Steady production and employment!
The seed is dried and the outer shell is separated from the kernel, which is what we know as whole nutmeg.
“Production, handling and processing of nutmeg and mace and their culinary uses…” Production, handling and processing of nutmeg and mace and their culinary uses – Section III-Post harvest handling. Food and Agricultural Organizations of the United Nations, n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.
These were all available at the local market with handmade nutmeg graters. The smell was out of this world.
My mother used artificial Vanilla flavoring all year round except for Christmas when she used real Vanilla Extract from a tiny bottle. It was measured with a tiny spoon and I was forcibly reminded of this when I read Terry Pratchett’s The Truth
“The curry was particularly strange, since. Mrs. Arcanum considered foreign parts only marginally less unspeakable than private part and therefore added the curious yellow curry powder with a very small spoon, lest everyone should suddenly tear their clothes off and do foreign things.”
Vanilla extract comes from the Vanilla bean. The bean is the fruit of a variety of orchid. The beans must be cured by heating them in the sun and then wrapping them to sweat at night for up to 20 days. They are air dried for 4-6 months to ferment and develop their flavor. There are three types, the most common being Bourbon-Madagascar. Talk about foreign parts! No wonder mother used a small spoon! It was named not for the drink but for the period when the Bourbon kings ruled the Island of Réunion.
Vanilla extract is made by macerating and percolating vanilla pods in a solution of ethanol and water.
“Vanilla extract.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Apr. 2017. Web. 01 May 2017.
I enjoyed learning all about these spices from someone who grew them and the experience brought a new dimension to my cooking. Definitely no more small spoons in this house.