Comments Off on SPICE TRAIL WITH IAN HEMPHILL @ JULIE’S PLACE, GOSFORD
Julie’s Place is very excited to announce a wonderful long lunch with herb and spice guru, Ian “Herbie” Hemphill.
Ian, author of “Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition”, among other respected books, will take you on a journey through the Indian sub-continent to learn about and experience their use of spices. And while he does, Julie Goodwin will cook for you the dishes that bring the stories to life. The lunch will consist of multiple delectable courses with wines.
Don’t miss out on this incredible opportunity to experience a journey through the world of spice with a peerless expert. And a beautiful lunch as well!
Making your own bespoke gin can be fun and satisfying if you have the right botanicals. Herbie’s Spices Ginspiration Spice Kit, combined with a vodka of your choosing, is a great way to commence your gin journey.
Juniper Berries are the main ingredient that must be used to call a product Gin. However there are a number of other botanicals, which when used in the correct proportions, open an Aladdin’s cave of exotic bespoke tastes for the adventurous gin drinker.
These spices are infused in vodka for just 3 days, you then strain the liquid off and bottle for your enjoyment, over ice or with your favourite tonic water.
JUNIPER BERRIES (Juniperus communis)
There are many different species of juniper, ranging from small shrubs 1.5 to 2 m high that provide us with the juniper berry of culinary use, to 12 m tall trees. Juniper bushes are compact with grey–green, ridged, sharp needle-like leaves that protrude at right angles, making the berries painful to harvest unless one is wearing strong gloves. The greenish-yellow flowers are indistinct and are followed by small, 7–10 mm diameter berries that take three years to mature. Initially hard and pale green, juniper berries ripen to blue–black, become fleshy and contain three sticky, hard brown seeds. When dried, the berries remain soft but if broken open, one will find the pith surrounding the seeds is quite friable. The aroma of juniper is immediately reminiscent of gin, with a woody, piney, resinous smell that is somewhat flowery and contains notes of turpentine. The flavour is equally pine-like, spicy, refreshing and savory, making it an excellent foil for rich, gamey or fatty foods. Although considered harmless to most, pregnant women and people with kidney problems are advised to avoid too much juniper.
Origin and History
Juniper trees are native to the Mediterranean, Arctic Norway, Russia, the north-west Himalayas and North America. Juniper has been regarded as a valuable item for medicinal purposes since the birth of Christ and has been considered throughout the ages as a magical plant. The Greek physicians Galen and Dioscorides wrote of juniper’s virtues around 100 AD and it is also mentioned in the Bible. Because of its air-cleansing piney fragrance, the foliage was used as a strewing herb to freshen stale air, and the Swiss burnt the berries with heating fuel in winter to sanitise stale classrooms. Juniper berries were sometimes utilised as a substitute for pepper, and they have been roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Gin, the alcoholic drink that derives its unique flavour from juniper berries, is named from an adaptation of the Dutch word for juniper, jenever.
Because juniper berries take three years to mature, a tree will bear both immature fruits and ready-to-be-harvested blue–black berries at the same time. The best-quality berries are picked by hand when ripe (usually in autumn) as any form of mechanical harvesting will crush these small pulpy spheres, allowing them to dry out and lose much of their flavour. We found picking juniper berries – nestled among their treacherous, needley foliage – so painful that we resorted to removing them with chopsticks. This was an inordinately slow task, which at least had the side-benefit of greatly improving our chopstick-handling skills.
Buying and Storage
Juniper berries are at their best when they are still moist and soft to the touch, squashing relatively easily between one’s fingers without crumbling from excessive dryness. It is not unusual for some berries to have a cloudy bloom on their indented, smooth blue–black skins, and although this is a harmless mould, berries that have not been properly dried may be excessively cloudy in appearance. Always wait to crush or grind juniper berries just before you use them, as the volatile component evaporates rapidly once exposed to the air. Store in a cool place in airtight packaging.
Juniper berries perform a unique role by contributing as much to the character of food through their ‘freshening’ ability as they do by way of their specific taste profile. As well as flavouring a dish, juniper cuts the gaminess of game, reduces the fatty effect of duck and pork and removes a perception of stodginess from bread stuffing. For this reason juniper berries are included in recipes for all sorts of game, such as venison, including reindeer in Scandinavia and wild duck in Ireland. They are added to fish and lamb and blend well with other herbs and spices, especially thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, bay leaves, allspice and onions and garlic. One application I am particularly fond of is in a simple chicken casserole, moistened with plenty of rough red wine and spiced with all the above plus a few juniper berries.
For information on hundreds of herbs, spices and spice blends, see The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill and published by Robert Rose Inc. Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Comments Off on Christmas Caper at The Essential Ingredient Rozelle
This is The Essential Ingredient’s last Christmas Caper at their Rozelle store, which stocks the largest range of Herbie’s Spices in Australia. Essential Rozelle has invited the people behind some of their most loved brands, including Herbie’s Spices, so that you can experience first hand how better quality ingredients and kitchen tools can bring your festive season to life. This is a shopping event like no other with oodles of product tastings, cooking demonstrations throughout the night and their biggest ever door prize giveaways.
Herbie’s Simply Delicious Dips
Wondering what to do with your ever growing selection of Herbie’s Spice packs? Ian ‘Herbie’ Hemphill and Liz Hemphill will show you how with just a few ingredients and some Herbie’s spices and spice blends, you can create simple delicious dips and spreads that will take pride of place on those lazy summer day grazing platters.
An Essential Dips Spice Kit will be on sale for $28 which includes 6 spices and blends and 5 delicious dip recipes that you’ll taste at the event.
Comments Off on Herbie is Guest Speaker at Tramsheds on 18th November
Herbie is Guest Speaker at Tramsheds on 18th November at 11:00am
Join us inside Tramsheds every Sunday for our Growers Markets from 8am-2pm!
In collaboration with Bodega 1904, our weekly Growers Markets feature a selection of seasonal fruit and veg from a selection of our favourite growers, sustainable products from community providores and a changing schedule of workshops and masterclasses featuring winemakers, cheesemakers, chefs, authors and artists.
This Sunday 11 November our line-up includes a selection of local favourites.
DATE AND TIME
SUN, 28 OCTOBER 2018, 8:00 AM –MON, 1 JANUARY 0001, 12:00 AM
Meet our guest speaker, Ian (Herbie) Hemphill of Herbie’s Spices, for an entertaining and informative spice conversation.
In this talk Herbie will navigate through the exotic waters of the history of the spice trade. You will learn about many different spices, their origins, and how they are processed and traded. Most importantly, Herbie will answer your questions, de-mystify their flavours and explain the principles behind spice blending, so you will feel comfortable using them in everyday cooking.
Tramsheds is an all-weather undercover precinct with free parking available for the first 2 hours, and free parking after 6pm.
Comments Off on Spice Essentials with Herbie & Kate in Rozelle
Herbie’s Spice Essentials
DATE AND TIME:
Sun. 28 October 2018
10:30 am – 1:30 pm AEDT
Cooking School at The Essential Ingredient
731-735 Darling St
Rozelle, NSW 2039
Join Australia’s spice guru Ian ‘Herbie’ Hemphill and daughter Kate (authors of The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition) in this hands-on class to explore the colourful and vibrant world of spices. Learn how spices bring readily available ingredients to life, including the art of making your own spice blends.
This will be the only hands-on Herbie’s course we will be running this year due to Kate’s schedule in the U.K so book early to avoid disappointment!
Muhamurra dip with za’atar flatbread (includes making flatbread)
Herbie has long been the nickname of Ian Hemphill, one of Australia’s foremost culinary herb and spice experts. Herbie and wife Liz started Herbie’s Spices in 1997, and after Forty-Five years of working in the herb and spice industry, Herbie is a well-respected and popular figure amongst his peers, in Australia and overseas.
Kate Hemphill, Ian & Liz’s eldest daughter, is an accomplished cook, a graduate of Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London, recipe contributor to The Spice & Herb Bible, and developer of most of the inspirational recipes you will find on www.herbies.com.au website.
1. Cancellations are not refundable.
2. The Essential Ingredient reserves the right to alter or cancel a class without notice. In the event of a change, you will be contacted on the daytime phone number provided to us at time of booking.
3. Registration is from 30 minutes prior to the class start time.
4. All classes and events require closed-in shoes.
5. We cannot accommodate dietary requirements in all cases. Please contact us prior to booking on 02 9555 8300.
Comments Off on Spice Appreciation in Conversation at Bondi Junction
SPICE APPRECIATION IN CONVERSATION AN INTRODUCTION TO THE WORLD OF SPICES AT HEALTHY LIFE BONDI JUNCTION 12th August from 12:00 noon to 2:00pm
(With Ian “Herbie” Hemphill)
This is your chance to talk about spices with Australian spice guru, Ian Hemphill of Herbie’s Spices.
Herbie is the author of the award winning Spice & Herb Bible, an authoritative herb and spice treatise sold in Canada, the USA, the UK and Australia. Copies will be available for sale and signing by Ian on the day.
Some of the subjects you can discus with Ian are:
The history of the spice trade and the Hemphill family’s obsession with herbs and spices for over 50 years.
The difference between a herb and a spice.
Vanilla, how it is grown and processed.
Storage, how to store and what does shelf life actually mean?
Quality and Adulteration, what is quality, how to identify and why it is important?
Herbs and spices are key to healthy, sustainable diets.
Cinnamon and cassia, what’s the difference and why you need to know.
Pepper, once the world’s most traded spices.
Chilli and all its derivatives, unknown to India, China and Europe only 500 years ago.
Ras el Hanout the most exotic Moroccan inspired spice blend on Earth.
Fragrant Sweet Spice, is another exotic blend for everyday use.
Comments Off on Spice Appreciation with Ian (Herbie) & Liz Hemphill in WA
Spice Appreciation with Ian (Herbie) & Liz Hemphill in WA
Ian & Liz Hemphill will be visiting Matters of Taste Cooking School in Western Australia on 2nd June 2018 to entertain and inform about the world of spices.
Come to our Guest Presenter EVENT on Saturday 2nd June 2018
Ian (Herbie) and Liz Hemphill are the gracious owners of the iconic Herbies Spices based in Sydney. If you want to know anything about spices, they are the perfect people to answer your questions. With seemingly infinite knowledge, they join us for Spice Mastery.
Over forty five years of working in the industry, including face-to-face lectures to groups from the general public, industrial brokering, manufacturing and marketing, has made Herbie a well-respected and popular figure among his peers, in Australia and overseas. We use Herbies Spices in class to make our food taste exceptional.
Ian and Liz will take you on a fascinating and mind-boggling journey into the mystical world of spice. From Ian’s childhood growing up with his spice pioneering parents in the 50’s, to travels around the globe in search of stunning produce, Ian and Liz have many stories to tell.
Delight in this fabulous 3 hour class and leave with a greater knowledge of how to exquisitely spice up your cooking!
Class: Spice Appreciation Saturday Afternoon EVENT June 2nd 2.30pm to 5.00pm – 40 participants, row seating, Demonstration Style, Tastings included $89.00.
Comments Off on Herbie’s Spices in Conversation 22nd April 2018
This is the comprehensive introduction to spices that almost needs no introduction!
In this two-hour session, Ian Hemphill, otherwise known as ‘Herbie’ will navigate through the exotic waters of the history of the spice trade. You will learn about many different spices, their origins, and how they are processed and traded. Most importantly, Herbie will de-mystify their flavours and explain the principles behind spice blending, so you will feel comfortable using them in everyday cooking.
Included in this price is a glass of wine, some spicy nibbles prepared by Liz, and a pack of Herbie’s delicious ‘Balmain & Rozelle Spice Blend’
Herbie strolls in an Indian Spice Garden with a group of travellers.
A modern trend in agriculture is to focus on broad-acre cropping to achieve greater efficiencies. One may be surprised to learn that many spices are still grown on small family-owned holdings, where more than one crop is cultivated. There is a simple logic to this method, one that has served Indian spice farmers for centuries, and has a few key reasons for being sustained.
A diverse planting is less likely to be wiped out by one disease that affects only one crop
Different plants are harvested at different times, spreading the workload and averaging out the farmer’s income stream
Prices will always fluctuate, and a diversity of crops helps to stabilise a farmer’s revenue
Herbie and Liz visited India with a group of spice travellers in March 2018, and these were some of the interesting things we saw when strolling through a family-owned spice farm in Kumily, in the south western state of Kerala, India.
Spike of Green Peppercorns
This is a spike of green peppercorns ready to be harvested.
Pepper is a tropical climbing vine, and the flower raceme is fertilised by the monsoon rain running down it. After a good monsoon, the spikes will be full of plump green berries.
Remains of Pepper Vine Flower Stem
Peppercorns that are left on the vine will gradually ripen and turn yellow then red.
Ripe, Red Peppercorns on Stem
To make black pepper, the green berries are threshed to remove the stems, then put out on mats in the sun to dry. During drying, an enzyme in the skin of the peppercorn turns it black, and creates the volatile oil that gives black pepper its characteristic flavour and aroma.
Peppercorns Drying Before Sieving
After drying, the peppercorns are sieved to remove pieces of stalk, and ‘light berries’. Light berries, (often called ‘pinheads’) are empty berries. That is they don’t contain the white centre you see when you crack a peppercorn. The white ‘heart’ of a peppercorn contains most of the piperine, and it is piperine that gives pepper its heat.
Cleaning Dried Black Pepper
The waste material is usually ground and added to low grade ground black pepper.
Ripe red peppercorns are soaked in water for up to a week in a process called ‘retting’. They are then removed from the water, macerated to remove the enzyme-containing skin that makes a peppercorn turn black, and dried in the sun. The result is a white peppercorn that is hotter than a black one, and does not have a black pepper taste.
Here’s a question for you:
What do you think is hottest, very black ground black pepper or pale grey ground black pepper?
The answer is counter-intuitive. The pale grey one is the hottest, as it is made from complete black peppercorns, which have a white core and have not been adulterated with pinheads (empty berries).
The next spice we came to was one of my long time favourites, Cardamom.
Cardamom Pods and Flowers
Cardamom is a member of the ginger family, and unlike ginger it flowers at the base of the plant. After flowering the green cardamom pods form like little green peas.
Close Up Cardamom Flower
Cardamom pods are one of the few spices that are dried in the dark. This helps to retain their green colour and optimum flavour.
Cardamom is considered to be an environmentally friendly spice, because the plants like shade and are cultivated in rain forest areas that don’t have to be cleared. The shady canopy in the forest provides an ideal environment for cardamom.
The same spice garden was dotted with a number of clove trees, all in bud. Cloves are native to the Indonesian spice islands and are now grown in many tropical parts of the world, including Kerala.
These clove buds will be harvested just before they open into flowers. Like pepper, the clove buds will be put out in the sun to dry and the enzyme that naturally occurs in a clove bud will turn it black and create the volatile oil eugenol. Eugenol is a strong natural anesthetic and antiseptic.
While in the spice garden we were fortunate enough to be given an insight into one of the oldest forms of trade negotiations.
The spice trade has always been surrounded in mystery, and one of the most fascinating rituals that prevails is the method of negotiating prices!
This video starts to explain the process of secret spice negotiation
We receive many questions about the world of spices, and in particular what makes a truly wonderful spice blend. The following article answers those questions, and we hope provides much more useful information.
In spices, we are fortunate enough to have a hobby that is also our passion, our business, and our livelihood … and it’s something that other people also find interesting. While green, leafy herbs are reassuring and familiar, there is an edginess about spices, a rawness, an element of danger that fascinates and lures.
Our late friend and radio broadcaster Alan Saunders, once commented that the difference between herbs and spices is this: herbs you can grow at home in your garden and on your window sill, spices you have to go out for. And the ancient traders went out for them in spades. Out to the East Indies all the way from Holland, England and Spain. Out to the West Indies, out to China and India, out to fascinating, dangerous, foreign, exotic lands.
Two thousand years ago, most known spices were a luxury only the wealthy could afford. As new spices such as cinnamon were discovered, their origins were surrounded in mystery and fantasy by spice traders, who were keen to maintain their exclusivity and high prices. The spice trade was extremely lucrative, with single voyages yielding profits ten times the original investment, fostering a breed of swashbuckling adventurers who went on tortuous journeys of discovery to bring home these precious commodities. But had it not been for the fact that spices store well once dried, and can be readily transported and traded, there may never have been a spice trade at all.
The 15th and 16th Century explorers Bartholomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan were searching for faster and safer routes to the sources of spices when they went on their voyages of discovery. Christopher Columbus was sailing west to find a shorter way to the Indonesian Archipelago when he bumped into the Americas and discovered allspice, chillies and vanilla (as well as chocolate, tomatoes and potatoes). The spice trade was so significant by the end of the 16th Century, that The British East India Company was founded in 1600, and by 1602 The United Dutch East India Company, the largest corporation in the world in these times, was formed.
So what is it about these ancient commodities that continues to captivate the imagination, thousands of years after humans discovered that nothing quite titillates the taste buds like spices? What would those traders have thought if they could have gazed into a crystal ball and seen that all these centuries later, we are still seeking out these highly desirable prizes? How amazing and fantastic it is that, although they have remained unchanged in their own attributes and characteristics for millennia, they still relate perfectly to our modern cuisines.
In the 21st century we are all extolled by every second lifestyle magazine to ‘Spice up our lives’. Towns that aspire to being a dot on the culinary map, hold a ‘Hot and Spicy’ food festival. Star chefs base their success on an ability to amaze the taste buds with their spice craft. Spices have made their way into more and more items on the supermarket shelves – not only hiding in traditional products like pickles and Worcestershire sauce, but in mustard-seeded mayonnaise, poppy seed and cracked pepper water biscuits, lime and chilli salad dressings, ginger-spiced marmalades … the list is endless, and growing!
Arguably, the most misunderstood aspect of spices is the vast and varied range of tastes they present to us, and that is the most likely reason why we continue to find them so irresistible. Thinking of spices only in terms of ‘hot and spicy’ would be like thinking of colour as only red, and ignoring the amazing spectrum of hues that we encounter every day. It would be like thinking of music as middle C with no other notes!
When you read about each spice in The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition, you will discover that their attributes and personalities are as varied as the colours of the rainbow. They have the ability to create as many different taste sensations as all the works of the great composers have done with music. What makes spices really exciting though, is that to appreciate them fully you don’t have to be the culinary equivalent of Rembrandt or have the genius of Beethoven. Everyone can use spices in everyday cooking, and with more practice, one can only look forward to more satisfaction.
So what are spices and what makes them so different to herbs? For the purposes of a broad definition, herbs are the leafy parts of edible plants and spices are generally the buds, bark, roots, berries, aromatic seeds and any other edible part of a plant (except the leaves) that is used, mostly dried, to flavour food. All encompassing isn’t it? There’s certainly more to spices than what you find at a chilli festival!
While many uses for herbs require them to be fresh, the majority of spices are dried. This is because drying activates naturally occurring enzymes in spices that ultimately create their flavours. Vanilla beans are tasteless and odourless when harvested, black peppercorns are green and cloves are devoid of pungency when picked. Nearly all seed spices have dried naturally on the plant by the time they are gathered, and nothing enhances the incredible complexity of flavours in a chilli more effectively than simply drying it.
Spices, until a couple of centuries ago, were used only by the affluent. Just think, that a collection of ingredients, used relatively sparingly by a minority of privileged diners should spawn such an enduring industry.
There are two myths about spices that need to be dispelled, here and now.
Myth 1: Spices Mask the Taste of Rotten Food. This misconception most probably developed because it has always been desirable to enhance the flavour of very bland foods or make meats with strong flavours more palatable. An old joint of mutton with overpowering lanoline flavours, benefits greatly by slow cooking in a selection of aromatic spices. Our interpretation of events is that some journalists, who reputedly tend to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, began to refer to this use of spices in somewhat colourful terms, feeding to their readers images of yokels gnawing at rotting bones on picturesque hillsides. The fact is that anyone so poor as to try and survive on rotting food (which although it may be relished as a delicacy by our dog, will most likely kill people) would not be able to afford spices anyway. And food poisoning is food poisoning, regardless of how many spices are added between the pot and the plate.
Myth 2: Spices are Preservatives. This second myth has a stronger basis in logic, as many spices do possess anti-microbial properties, however we have never encountered a herb or spice that has preservative qualities per se. The most common forms of food preservation in ancient times were by dehydration and using salt or acid (usually vinegar) to preserve wet products. As salt and vinegar have extremely pervasive tastes of their own, the addition of spices helped to make foods preserved with them more palatable. The anti-bacterial qualities in garlic and mustard seeds were a bonus in the preserving process and even today, many manufactured food products owe their stability to the use of spices in conjunction with established preserving techniques.
Do You Like Spicy Food? Spices are now so much a part of our lives that it would be hard to imagine a world without them. And next time you hear someone say “I don’t like spicy food!” just ask them if they like cinnamon donuts or vanilla ice cream, which are both flavoured with spices. We don’t think anyone will make such a claim after using the recipes you’ll find on our website.
Buying and Storage
Spices are an agricultural commodity, and like any other food that is grown, harvested, processed, traded, blended, packaged, stored, distributed, sold and ultimately consumed, huge variations in flavour and appearance will occur. Once you have tasted food prepared with the very best quality spices, you will never again be dismissive about the importance of quality in spices.
Over the years, we’ve spent many hours in many factories and warehouses in many parts of the world, seeing what factors determine quality. Our purpose here is to pass that experience and knowledge on to you, so that you can differentiate between good and bad when you are buying.
Growing is naturally where it all begins. Soil, climatic conditions, plant varieties and harvesting techniques will all contribute to the quality of a spice; the problem is that you have almost no way of identifying any of these factors. Spices are now grown in many tropical and temperate regions around the world, and while conventional wisdom may indicate that the best spice is one grown in its country of origin, these days that is not necessarily the case. Pepper vines are native to the South of India, and Indian pepper has a distinctive flavour characteristic that many pepper lovers prefer. However black pepper from Lampong in Indonesia has light, lemon-like notes that have their own attraction while pepper grown in North Queensland, Australia has a pleasing mild fruitiness that others prefer. So just like wines, spices can give us distinct varietal differences. Where country of origin can make a significant difference to the flavour of a spice, the spice seller should make some reference to this on the label. Sweet paprika from Hungary has a different flavour profile to mild paprika from Spain. Each is equally as good in its appropriate cooking application, it is just that they are different, so it helps in some cases to know where the spice came from.
The importance of processing after harvest will vary depending upon the spice. For most seed spices the process is relatively simple, whereas with vanilla it is highly complex and if it’s not done correctly it could render the final product useless. Processing usually involves some sort of grading and cleaning. With whole spices it is very easy to see if you are getting some extra pieces of sticks and stones, all charged at the same price as the spice!
The flavours and aromas of spices are contained in the volatile oils held in their cell structure. A cinnamon quill may not have much aroma when you smell it, however when you break it, the cells are ruptured and they release these volatiles, filling the air with the sweet fragrance of warm, spicy oranges. Volatile oils are destroyed rapidly by heat, and even a slight increase in the moisture content after drying, will cause the oils in a spice to oxidise more quickly. So you can see that storage and transportation conditions also affect quality.
What has to be remembered is that all herbs and spices will deteriorate over time as the volatile oils gradually evaporate and the flavour and aroma dissipates. Don’t be tempted to just use twice the amount of a spice that is well past its best before date, as this will only double the strength of the deep, base flavours and not compensate for the loss of fragrant, volatile top notes that have been lost.
The best advice when buying spices is to look for reputable brands (eg Herbie’s Spices!) that are packed in high-barrier packaging. This may be either clear laminate plastic with a re-sealable zip seal, or glass jars. When stocking your pantry, try not to buy quantities that are too large. You should definitely try to use a spice by the “best before” date on the pack – don’t keep it any longer, even if there is a little left.
Never buy spices in cardboard, paper or low-grade packs, although the lower price might be tempting. These cheaper packs allow the volatile oils to escape and oxygen gets in to the product, so it is already deteriorating by the time you take it home, and it’s false economy. Some people like the romantic notion of scooping out their spices from bulk bins, however these spices have been exposed to a considerable amount of air, insects and possible contamination from other ingredients such as allergens stored in close proximity. Sadly, the result is an inferior flavour and shorter shelf life, so take home a photo of the charming shop full of open sacks, but buy your spices somewhere else.
For those who like to have herbs and spices on display in a spice rack, make sure they are placed so they don’t have sunshine directly on them, and use the rack for either whole spices or your favourites, which are used frequently. When you spring clean, don’t hesitate to throw away any herbs and spices that have passed their Best Before date. It’s simply not worth it to add to a meal something with hardly any flavour left. When you work out the cost of herbs and spices and the small amount used in a recipe, they are really very economical.
We are often asked if spices should be stored in the fridge or freezer. Spices do store well for long periods in the freezer, however when the spice is removed from the cold environment, condensation will form, and that introduces moisture, something that accelerates deterioration. Therefore, if you want to store a spice for a long time before you use it, the freezer is an option. But, if you will be putting it in and taking it out several times, we would not recommend fridge or freezer storage.
Another tip to make sure your spices last well is to avoid shaking or pouring the contents over a steaming saucepan. The steam will condense around the inside of the pack, and the moisture will make the spice go hard, allow the volatile oils to oxidise more rapidly, or worse still, it may go mouldy.
When you’re wondering whether your spices are still good to use, simply smell them and if you can detect some aroma and pungency in your ground spices, they should be alright. Have a little sniff of any spice you are adding, (be careful if its chilli) each time you cook with it. You will become very familiar with the aroma, and this helps you get a feel for what flavour is best to add, and at the same time you will develop an understanding of good and poor quality.
If you want to check the freshness of whole spices, you will need to either break the piece (say for cinnamon sticks or cloves) or for a spice like nutmeg, scrape it with a knife or grater to release the aroma.
Using Whole or Ground Spices
Whether spices are used in their whole form, or ground to a powder, depends on the cooking method and the most effective way to get the best flavour out of them. A whole piece of cinnamon quill may be added to fruit during stewing, so the flavour is infused and the liquid remains clear. If ground cinnamon were used, the liquid would be muddy-looking. However when making a curry, mixing spices with flour for cakes and biscuits, or rubbing spices onto meats before cooking, ground spices are always used so they mix readily with other ingredients, or impart their flavours more rapidly, having been crushed.
Some cooks say that you should always buy spices whole and grind them yourself. This is not a bad idea if you’re not sure of the quality and freshness of ground spices. And if you’re an infrequent user, whole spices have a longer shelf life than ground ones. On average, whole spices, when stored as suggested above, will last for up to three years or more, while ground spices will start losing flavour after twelve to eighteen months. Good quality, freshly ground spices are as flavoursome as those you have ground yourself, so if you use a lot of ground spice, don’t be put off by the convenience of ready ground.
Grinding spices yourself can be extremely rewarding, especially if you do them in a pestle and mortar, (the pestle is the bit you pound with and the mortar is the bowl), so the aromas waft up as you pound away. We are often asked if there are any good spice grinders as an alternative to a pestle and mortar. Sadly, spices vary so much in size, hardness, texture and oil content that it is nigh on impossible to find a domestic grinder that will handle them all. Seed spices, like pepper, can be ground in a normal pepper mill. Then again, you can use a coffee grinder, but electric grinders can generate excessive heat that can destroy some of the lighter volatiles, so don’t over-grind. And if you don’t want your coffee tasting of cumin and fenugreek, the easiest way to clean any grinder is to grind a dessertspoonful of uncooked rice in it. Rice flour is gritty and cleans the contact surfaces effectively while absorbing residual oils, leaving the mechanism quite clean. So when it comes to all those other spices, take heed of the trendy television chefs, and use the trusty pestle and mortar that has been a cook’s most useful implement of choice for thousands of years.
Some cooks may tell you that roasting spices brings out the flavour. Wrong! Roasting spices changes the flavour. So in the same way that a slice of toast tastes different to a slice of bread, so a roasted spice tastes different to an un-roasted one. Spices are roasted to create greater depth of flavour and robustness, often when used with red meats. The majority of Indian curries are enhanced when roasted spices are used, however one would never roast cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and ginger before adding them to a cake. We also prefer to use un-roasted spices in fish and vegetable dishes as the more delicate, fresh-tasting top notes are still recognisable, and compliment these foods better than robust, roasted flavours.
Spices may be dry-roasted when they are whole or ground. Heat a heavy-based pan on the top of the stove until it is almost too hot to touch. (If it is too hot the spices may burn, turning them bitter.) Then put your spices into the hot pan and keep them moving so they don’t stick or burn. When fumes begin to emanate and the colour starts to darken, they are sufficiently roasted and should be tipped out of the pan ready for use within a day or two. We do not recommend storing roasted spices for more than a few days, as after roasting the flavours deteriorate quite rapidly. Many cooks like to roast them whole for the same reason as buying spices whole. Similarly, good quality, freshly ground spices will roast perfectly well.
Spices Found in Popular Cuisines:
Thousands of books have been written on the nuances of many cuisines and the extraordinary variety of ingredients that contribute to their character. So it may seem a gross over-simplification to identify a combination of herbs and spices that represents the flavours perceived as dominant in a particular cuisine. However the fact remains that for the majority of popular foods from different cultures there are certain herbs and spices, which, with the readily available ingredients of those regions, contribute to their unique character.
Therefore when the following herbs and spices are incorporated into even the most basic of meals (stir-fries, grills, barbecues and curries to name a few) a flavour will be imparted that is distinctly reminiscent of that cuisine. The spices are shown in descending order, so the first item is the ingredient used in greatest quantity.
There is enormous pleasure to be had by combining individual flavour characteristics to create completely different tastes. Spice blends are convenient and effective, and making your own combinations is simple with just a basic understanding of how to mix a variety of spices together.
Spice blending is an art as much as a science, and every spice blender will have an individual approach to making a blend. The way of achieving a blend may vary considerably depending upon the user’s requirements. A multinational food company wanting a spice blend to use in fast food outlets will be concerned about cost, a flavour profile that does not offend anyone and uses readily available, consistent quality ingredients. In the mid-20th century, the majority of these blends were high in salt, sugar and monosodium glutamate. By the 1990’s things started to change. Still high in salt, wheat flour as a filler to keep the weight up and the price down, and free flow agents stopped the powdered blends going hard if kept for too long.
Like the people in your neighbourhood, spices all have different characteristics. Some are strong and could be even described as unpleasant when tasted in isolation, others (like one of our favourites, cinnamon), are a delight to experience even on their own. In making a spice blend, we seek to create a different taste that can only be achieved by putting a combination of spices together. Sometimes a spice blend bears little resemblance to any of the individual spices used, in other cases a few characteristic spice flavours may dominate, for example in mixed spice where cinnamon and cloves are often the first aromas one might detect. Although the following guidelines will help you make spice blends, there are really no rules as such, and you can use your own creativity and instinct to create a range of different tastes.
The art of making a good spice blend is to bring a range of different tastes and textures together so they create an ideal balance that tantalizes the taste buds. Just as when cooking a meal we balance the sweet, salty, sour and bitter taste elements, when combining spices we balance their different attributes. For this purpose, the spices are grouped into five basic categories: sweet, pungent, tangy, hot and amalgamating.
Sweet spices are those that have varying degrees of inherent sweetness and are associated mostly with sweet foods such as puddings, cakes and pastries. It is worth remembering though, that these sweet spices have a role to play in balancing savoury foods as well. Among the sweet spices are cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and vanilla.
Pungent spices are unmistakeable as they have very strong aromas that may be camphor-like and astringent. Spices such as cloves, star anise and the cardamoms fall into this category. Australian native herbs and spices such as bush tomato (akudjura) and wattleseed would be grouped here as well. The pungent spices are valuable because even in small proportions they contribute a freshness of flavour to food that may otherwise be lacking. Use all pungent spices sparingly; the chart at the end of this section indicates the proportions in which each of these spices should be used. This is only an approximate guide, as even within the pungent group, ground star anise for example is stronger than ground caraway seed, however grouping still helps one gain an instinct for the relative strengths of different spices.
Tangy spices make an important contribution to the balance of spice blends in the same way that sourness is important in balancing meals. The astringency of tamarind is usually added at the cooking stage, as it is a messy spice to handle and would not blend readily with dry spices. However sumac with its fruity lemon-like freshness makes an excellent tangy addition to a dry spice blend, as does amchur (green mango) powder.
Hot spices, when added judiciously, can make or break a dish. This collection of relatively few spices is essentially responsible for the overused reference people make to ‘spicy’ food. Hot spices such as pepper and chilli stimulate the palate, causing the release of endorphins, those chemicals produced by the body that give us a sense of wellbeing. Spicy heat in food makes it appetizing and often only needs to be used in tiny amounts to have the desired effect.
Amalgamating spices are often unsung heroes. They make a very important contribution to spice blends, which is often underestimated. There are only a few regularly used amalgamating spices, however they are found in the majority of spice blends. For example, with coriander seed it is almost impossible to use too much. Sweet paprika is similar in the amount you can use. Strangely sweet paprika is a member of the chilli family but it has no heat, and is used with gay abandon in the famous casserole ‘Hungarian Goulash’.
The following chart is a basic guide showing the most commonly used spices in the five groups just mentioned. The quantity in teaspoons at the bottom of each column gives an approximate indication of the proportion (by volume, eg. spoon or cup) that you would find in a typical blend. For example a tasty meat seasoning to sprinkle on steak before grilling may contain:
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon amchur powder
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground chilli
5 teaspoons ground sweet paprika
Plus salt to suit one’s personal preference. Note that although pepper and chilli are both hot spices, the relative differences in their flavour and heat strength makes some variation in quantity appropriate.
Simply remember that these proportions can be varied as you experiment and become familiar with the spices. The following suggested quantities are a good starting point, so keep this little table handy to help avoid disaster!
Some Spices and Their Five Basic Flavour Categories
Don’t panic if the spice mix or curry you made today answers to ‘harsh’ when you were hoping for ‘mellow’. Spice blends round out and become better balanced after about 24 hours. So tomorrow, the complexities will have amalgamated, smoothing off the rough edges … providing, of course, all the proportions of sweet, pungent, tangy, hot and amalgamating spices were balanced in the first place.
You can see a complete range of Herbie’s Spices spice blends at this link: http://www.herbies.com.au/product-category/herbs-and-spices/spice-herb-blends/
We hope it brings you as much enjoyment as making these has brought us.
For more information about individual herbs and spices, making spice blends, and delicious recipes see The Spice & Herrb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill, published by Robert Rose Inc. Toronto, Canada.
When studding the Christmas ham with cloves last year, in preparation for coating with our special glaze, we thought people may be interested to know some facts about this wonderful spice.
Following is an extract from Spice Notes & Recipes by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill. Although this edition is out of print it has been replaced by The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition, also by Ian & Kate.
Whole cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata) as we know them are the dried, unopened flower buds of an attractive, tropical evergreen tree which reaches about 10 m in height and has dense, dark-green foliage. The trunk of a clove tree is around 30 cm in diameter, and usually forks near the base into two or three main branches of very hard wood with grey, rough bark. The lower branches often die back, and when they are closely planted, these conical-shaped trees form a magical aromatic canopy. New leaves are bright-pink, and mature with a glossy, dark-green upper surface, the underneath being paler green and dull. Clove buds are borne in clusters of 10–15, and are picked when they have reached full size, though still green and just starting to turn pink – reminding one of the unopened eyes of baby marsupials. If the buds are not gathered, they will flower and turn into oblong, drooping fruits known as ‘mother of cloves’, which have no use in the spice trade.
Harvested Clove Buds Laid Out to Dry
Clove Buds on the Tree
Cloves Changing Colour During Drying – The Dark Green Mat Has Clove Stems on it
When dried, cloves are reddish brown to dark brown in colour, approximately 10–15 mm long, nail-shaped and tapered at one end. Interestingly, the name clove derives from the Latin clavus meaning ‘nail’. In German nelke means ‘little nails’, and the Chinese ting hsiang means ‘nail spice’. The ‘bud’ end has a friable, paler ball appearing to sit atop four engagement-ring-style clasps. The aroma of cloves is pungent, warm, aromatic, camphor-like and faintly peppery. The flavour is intensely pungent, and words like medicinal, warming, sweet, lingering and numbing come to mind. When used in moderation, cloves bring a pleasing, palate-cleansing freshness and sweet spicy flavour to food.
Origin and History:
Clove Trees on Obilatu in The Spice Islands
Cloves are native to the eastern Indonesian islands referred to as the Moluccas (including Ternate, Tidor, Motir, Makian and Batjan). In an extraordinary archaelogical discovery in Syria (ancient Mesopotamia), the remains of cloves were found in a domestic kitchen site, dating back to around 1700BC. (Source – Spice: The History of Temptation. New York:Knopf, 2004) One can scarcely imagine the journey those cloves made from the Moluccas by sea and land and the number of hands they would have passed through on their way to their final destination. Cloves are believed to have been introduced to China during the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). They were probably the first form of breath freshener, as it was recorded that courtiers held cloves in their mouths to sweeten the breath when addressing the emperor. Cloves were a caravan import known to the Romans and were brought into Alexandria in the second century AD. By the fourth century AD this spice was well known around the Mediterranean and by the eighth century throughout Europe. The Arabs, who traded cloves from centres in India and Ceylon, kept the origins of their precious cargo a closely guarded secret.
Following the Crusades in Europe, disease and plagues were commonplace and there was a constant search for spices that could sweeten the air, which must often have been full of the stench of death. Cloves were found to have a natural antiseptic effect, and the pungent oil gave quick relief from toothache. By the 13th century, people were making pomanders (apples or oranges studded with cloves) to carry on them to ward off the plague.
On his return from the Orient in 1297, Marco Polo recalled having seen plantations of cloves on East Indian islands in the China Sea. Columbus sailed west in search of these spice islands but instead found the West Indies. Five years later, Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to India on the same search, and obtained cloves in Calicut (Calcutta), a trading centre that had probably brought the cloves from the East Indies.
From 1514 the Portuguese controlled the clove trade and the search for spices in general was on in earnest. In 1522 the only surviving ship of Magellan’s circumnavigation fleet returned to Spain with 26 tonnes of cloves, more than enough to pay for the entire cost of the expedition. The captain, Sebastian del Cano, was rewarded with a pension and a coat of arms comprising three nutmegs, two sticks of cinnamon and 12 cloves. The Portuguese monopoly in the Moluccas was broken by the Dutch, who expelled them in 1605 and ruthlessly maintained control for another 200 years, using cruel and gruesome measures. Part of the Dutch strategy to maintain high prices for cloves was to restrict by law the cultivation of cloves to the island of Amboina, uprooting and burning trees growing on other islands. The death penalty was imposed on anyone cultivating or selling the spice anywhere except Amboina. Nonetheless from 1750 to the early 1800s numerous attempts were made to break this stranglehold on the clove trade. Most successful was the superintendent of Ile de France (Mauritius), an intrepid Frenchman named Pierre Poivre (the original Peter Piper of the nursery rhyme), who smuggled some ‘mother of cloves’ out of Amboina and propagated a small number of trees. With varying degrees of success, clove plantations were established on Réunion, Martinique, Haiti and in the Seychelles. With the abolition of slavery gaining momentum, Zanzibar had a surplus of slaves until an Arab by the name of Saleh bin Haramil al Abray established clove plantations for the slaves to be put to work on. What was not lost on Saleh bin Haramil al Abray was the successful breaking of the Dutch monopoly on the clove trade by Pierre Poivre. Sultan Said of Oman ruled his kingdom from Muscat, however, in 1827 he sailed to Zanzibar and made a commercial treaty with America, mostly involving the trade in ivory. He soon realised, though, that to grow Zanzibar’s wealth he would have to increase trade with America and Europe and identified the clove trade as a means to achieve his objectives. The ill-fated Saleh bin Haramil al Abray had all his plantations confiscated because Sultan Said saw him as a political threat. Sultan Said then decreed that three clove trees would have to be planted for every coconut palm on Zanzibar and Pemba, making Zanzibar one of the world’s largest producers by the time he died in 1856. Despite a major setback with ‘sudden death disease’, which attacked mature trees, Zanzibar became – along with Madagascar – one of the world’s major clove producers.
The first harvesting of cloves takes place when the trees are six to eight years of age and continues then for up to 50 years; some trees reportedly live for up to 150 years. The trees are surprisingly sensitive and will usually only deliver one bumper crop in four years, the success of following crops being largely dependent on the degree of sympathy employed in the previous harvest. Rough handling and breaking of branches will generate debilitating shock in clove trees, diminishing subsequent yields. In Sir James Frazer’s famous work, The Golden Bough, he described the attitude of the native people to their crops: ‘When the clove trees are in blossom, they are treated like pregnant women. No noise may be made near them; no light or fire may be carried past them at night; no-one may approach them with his hat on, all must uncover in their presence. These precautions are observed lest the tree should be alarmed and bear no fruit, or should drop its fruit too soon like the untimely delivery of a woman who has been frightened in her pregnancy.’ Although modern attitudes have changed, the planting and harvesting of cloves still has religious significance in some villages.
Clove clusters are picked by hand when the buds are at full size, but before any petals have fallen to expose the stamens. As they do not all reach harvesting stage at the same time, a picker must be skilled enough to know the best clusters to pick and put in baskets. The filled baskets are returned to a central area, where the flower buds are removed from the flower stems by twisting the cluster against the palm of the hand. The snapped-off buds are spread out to dry on woven mats, where the tropical sun dries them in a few days to their characteristic reddish-brown colour. During drying, enzymes create the volatile oil eugenol, which is also present in lesser concentration in dried clove stems. A traditional way to gauge correct dryness of cloves is to hold them tightly in one’s hand and if they hurt, the spiky sections are hard, an indication of being properly dried. Having lost about two-thirds of their weight, one kilogram of cloves may consist of up to 15 000 buds.
Clove leaves are also harvested to produce clove leaf oil by steam distillation. This volatile oil is used in perfumery and food and beverage manufacturing. Because the harvesting of leafy branches for this oil seriously diminishes yields of cloves and makes the trees susceptible to fungal infection, it is not a common practice among the major producing countries.
Buying and Storage:
When buying whole cloves, look for clean, well-presented buds, as this is one of the best indications of how much care has been taken in the harvesting process. Each bud should be intact, still retaining the little soft, friable ball on the top. Look out for short clove-sized sticks which are in fact clove stems. Clove stems contain about 30% of the volatile oil in a clove, and are one of the most popular ways for unscrupulous spice traders to adulterate their goods. Another ‘trick of the trade’ has been to boil cloves in water to extract some of the oil, after which the depleted cloves are dried and sold. Only buy ground cloves from a reputable establishment that can assure you they have been recently milled, as when they’re ground, cloves lose their volatile oil fairly quickly. Ground cloves should be dark brown, because light-brown powder that is somewhat fibrous and gritty is probably heavily cut with ground clove stem. Store whole and ground cloves in airtight packaging and keep away from extremes of heat, light and humidity.
In Indonesia ground cloves are mixed with tobacco to make ‘kretek’ cigarettes, which crackle as they burn, and give off a distinctive aroma. To encounter the smell of a ‘kretek’ cigarette anywhere in the world immediately transports one back to Asia. Cloves are the essential component in a clove orange, or pomander (see P. 272), a dramatic example of the antibacterial qualities of cloves.
Because of their high pungency, cloves must always be used sparingly in cooking as too much can easily overpower a meal. Even though care is to be taken in their application, it is hard to imagine a host of traditional foods, including apple pie, ham, stewed fruit and pickles, without the addition of cloves. In Denmark they are an ingredient in the popular ‘pepper cake’ and are frequently added to exotic Arabian dishes. A popular mulled wine of the Middle Ages called ‘hippocras’ was made with ginger, cloves, and other spices. Right up to the present day, the warming spiced wines of Europe and Scandinavia are flavoured in the same way. Cloves are used in Indian and Asian curries and, as a truly international spice, can be found in the kitchens of every continent of the world.
For more information about culinary herbs and spices, and interesting recipes, see The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill, published by Robert Rose Inc, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition is available in Canada, The USA, The UK and Australia.
With the holiday season fast approaching after the flurry of Christmas activities, I thought some of you may be interested in some spiced holiday reading of a chapter from my book Spice Travels.
Spice Travels has given me a wonderful opportunity to share many of the spice experiences I have had while in pursuit of my obsession, an interest nurtured by my parents for nearly as long as I can remember. My fascination in this ancient and intoxicating trade could not have been satiated without the generosity and hospitality of many growers, traders and food lovers, who share this interest.
Among the people who have been so helpful over the years, I would specifically like to thank Dr. P.S.S. Thampi, Director of Publicity, Spices Board of India. I met Thampi in 1986 at the First International Spice Group Meeting in New Delhi, and since then he has made it possible for us to visit numerous spice growing, research and processing facilities in India, and has also become a dear and valued friend. My thanks also go to Thampi’s friends, who befriended us, and made us feel so welcome during our stay in Cochin.
A book like this would never have been written without the support and persistence of my agent, Philippa Sandall and the enthusiasm of my publisher, Bernadette Foley of Macmillan Australia. Thank you Bernadette for convincing me that people would want to read about a contemporary spice merchant’s wanderings around the globe, your encouragement and constant margin notes saying “Tell me more!” spurred me on to reveal all. To my editor Brianne Tunnicliffe, thank you for your patience and attention to detail.
And of course I could not have written this book without the encouragement and support from my wife Liz. She has endured many so-called holidays in remote, uncomfortable, steamy, mosquito-ridden (but never inhospitable) parts of the world, while humouring my obsession with spices. She is my greatest supporter and most constructive critic, her natural commonsense and innate editorial skills have been invaluable.
This chapter is based on our 1991 visit to Gujerat in India, during the first of many Spice Discovery Tours Liz and I have led since then.
The Spices Research Station
Where else in the world but India would you find a Spices Research Station? Fortunately for those of us who are consumed by the lifelong passion for all things associated with spices, India takes this subject very seriously. In fact more so than any other country in the world. Therefore when we took our Spice Discovery Tour to India in March 1991, it would not have been complete without a visit to the Spices Research Station in Gujerat in the north-western state of Ahmedabad. Our objective was to see where agricultural research is undertaken for India’s seed spices. Spices come from many different parts of plants, but the group that makes the greatest varietal contribution is the aromatic seeds of a wide range of annual plants. While spices gathered from the roots, fruits, berries, bark and buds of plants, shrubs and trees, tend to come from the tropical zones north and south of the equator, seed spices are mostly grown in the temperate zones further north and south. Although trade over many centuries has made most spices readily available in even remote areas, one will notice in regional cuisines a tendency to favour those spices that are most readily available. So in the south of India, pepper, cardamom, ginger and turmeric will dominate, while in the north we see frequent use of fenugreek, cumin, dill, ajowan, fennel, mustard and coriander seeds.
The flight to Ahmedabad had taken us via a short stopover in Bombay (now referred to as Mumbai). The drive from the airport to the hotel in Mumbai provided more culture shocks for our group of intrepid travellers. Our rattly old bus crawled through almost stationary traffic, while the most incredible crush of humanity was fascinating, exciting and disturbing. We passed families who lived permanently on the footpaths surrounded by their meagre possessions, (one even with a chook), or they dwelt in humpeys made of hessian bags. Cows with arched horns, their pointed tips painted blue, wandered amongst the throng, seemingly oblivious to the honking horns, trucks, bicycles and urchins weaving around them. A rustic, hand-pulled cart with the body of an old man on it trundled by the bus window. Some of us could not avert our eyes from this sight, unfamiliar, irreverent and uncivilised by our standards. Others looked away out of respect for the departed. You see things here you wish you hadn’t, remember them later and are grateful you have. This is India, emotion, contradiction, fascination, voyeurism, cynicism, beauty and pragmatism, all assaulting the senses at once. Arriving at the majestic Taj Mahal hotel, overlooking India Gate, provided a cool, comfortable haven from the heat and intensity of so much humanity outside.
Although appreciating this unrealistic haven like a pair of 18th Century Victorian ninnies, we felt ashamed at our cowardice by indulging in such comfort while there was so much out there to see. So we ventured forth early the next morning as the crowds stirred and the nearby markets were beginning to open. We strolled through street markets, goodness knows when the streets ever get used to convey traffic, crammed with stalls selling a wonderful variety of good quality fresh fruits and vegetables. We couldn’t help noticing how many vegetables look smaller than our highly fertilised, irrigated produce back home, however when tasted, these humble offerings in bright, natural ripeness convey a richness of flavour that reminds me of dad’s home-grown vegetables. There were little tomatoes, not the trendy cherry tomatoes we know, that would be shunned in our supermarkets from lack of size. One of these morsels seemed to have as much flavour in its compact sphere as two mass-produced tomatoes of double the size.
We passed a barrow the size of a small utility truck, piled high with tiny, virgin-white, potent garlic bulbs (Allium sativum). Besides their size, these little bulbs looked much like the garlic we are used to seeing. Each bulb is a round, lumpy collection of bulblets encased in parchment-like, flaky, outer-skin, resembling tightly clenched knuckles wrapped in tissue paper. These bulblets are commonly called ‘cloves’, a term often found in recipe books and bearing no relationship whatsoever to the spice we call cloves. Liz spotted a large brass bucket that we couldn’t resist buying for about A$15. We continued to fill it with purchases, gee gaws and bric-a-brac for our little girls, and by some traveller’s quirk, somehow convinced the airline to allow us to bring it home as cabin luggage. The fish markets, which we usually avoid, were clean. Thankfully, at the cool beginning of the day they had not yet developed their characteristic pong. Fish of all sizes were on sale, neatly laid out by merchants sitting cross-legged behind their silvery displays of no more than thirty gutted offerings. A buyer haggles with the merchant, who with fish scale encrusted, calloused hands turns the shiny carcass to glisten and reveal its fresh appearance, while convincing his customer what good value it is. We hurried past the cleaning area, entrails slithering between deft, knife wielding workers feet as they fell, squishy on the concrete floor, before being shoveled away.
By now my head was starting to spin from environment input overload. So much that was so foreign yet so exciting was going on all around us, yet it was becoming difficult to absorb it all. We took respite at a small ‘hotel’, hotels in the streets here being more like a café than a hostelry. Weak black tea lightly spiced with cardamom refreshed us while we spread out our purchases for the girls. Bangles, rings, hair-clips and sunglasses will make a good number of little parcels to hand out as our three daughters bounce excitedly around us when we get home and unpack our bags.
As we flew to Ahmedabad in the northwest of India, we recalled our experiences in Hyderabad to the east, and wondered how would they be different. By contrast, Hyderabad we knew to be relatively wealthy, something confirmed upon our arrival there. The Hyderabad Oberoi struck us as something between the Shan-gri-la of Lost Horizon and Nirvana. We were greeted there by acres of marbled high ceilings, solid carved wood doors, highly polished marble in the bathrooms, expansive open areas, a swimming pool and panoramic views. Our guide in Hyderabad, Satish, had not experienced a group that wanted to go bush rather than linger over local sights including the magnificent Golconda Fort. However he had done his homework and we headed off out of town with a picnic lunch packed by the hotel. The bus lurched to a halt in front of a Muslim arms shop, and as Satish alighted we joked about whether he was collecting an issue of weapons for our protection. Nothing so dramatic, he emerged with two enormous red rugs for us to sit on later when we had our picnic lunch.
As we got further out of Hyderabad the traffic thinned, horns blared less frequently and the density of population became less. Our first stop was at a jasmine garden where marigolds, roses and chrysanthemums were also growing. The jasmine was tied up like a bush, so the flowers would form prolifically on the outside for easy access when picking. Flowers are an important element in Indian life, whether it is for devotional purposes, the way married Hindu women wear flowers in their hair every day, or for sheer pleasure, blossoms are on sale every day in every market. The aroma of picked flowers was intoxicating as their fragrances leeched into the warming morning air and evoked a deep childhood memory. It was in the mid nineteen sixties when my father made pot-pourri from rose petals, various scented-leaved geraniums, lavender and calendula flowers, lemon verbena, cinnamon, cloves, orris root powder and essential oils. I remember the family picking these fragrant ingredients on balmy, bee-laden days. Dad then dried the harvest and brought it together to make pot-pourri in a veritable act of alchemy. When I experience the fragrance of flowers, it does sadden me to see how the notion of a pot-pourri has become debased. These days, it is either just another commercial room-freshener, redolent with sickly, artificial scents, or an extremely poor imitation of the original concept, but made of poor quality dried leaves and coloured wood shavings. I emerged from my reverie as we watched some women nimbly gathering the delicate blooms, and carrying large baskets containing their harvest on their heads, with long-necked, straight-backed gliding elegance.
The next village we drove through was where Satish had grown up, its streets barely wide enough to accommodate the bus. One could have reached out the windows and touched the shops and stalls as we drove past them. Every aspect of village life was carrying on around us, merchants selling their wares, tailors sewing, men lazily drinking coffee and smoking or urinating against walls, children scampering around like little jackrabbits. We strained up a steep rise, the bus chugging around a sharp bend in the road and then it stopped at a pillbox that looked like the local police post. Satish got out and for about five minutes was engaged in heated conversation with the uniformed, mustached, baton-under-the-arm policeman. Some money changed hands, Satish climbed back on board and we were on our way again.
The road began to get bumpier and occasionally we heard some alarming knocks and clunks in the bus’s suspension and imagined what it would be like to have a broken spring, axle or tail shaft out here. Our attention was soon drawn from the prospect of mechanical breakdown when we came upon some enormous brick structures that were traditional brickworks. Like so many experiences in this country, we could have been in a time-warp from centuries ago. The people working here were not locals, but comprised about twenty families from Orissa. Amongst the workers were about ten Gypsies wearing an abundance of ornate silver bands on their arms and legs, and brightly coloured clothes. More silver ornaments were braided into their hair, setting off bright smiles and a decidedly cheeky demeanor. These women were warm and friendly and not one hand shot out in begging mode. Instead they spontaneously formed a circle around us and did a beautiful rhythmic dance accompanied by singing. The other workers gathered around to watch until the boss came over and scolded them all back to work. How lucky we were to experience something so warm and uncontrived, the Gypsies sharing some of their culture for the simple joy of it. Satish told us these workers need to make about 750 bricks to make jus one dollar, hard work indeed, especially when one sees a little woman carrying ten bricks on her head as the kiln is loaded. These kilns have been made in a similar fashion for centuries. Basically a huge monolith of bricks is stacked up to ten metres high, fifty metres long and twenty metres wide. A firebox in the middle, aspirated by vents left open during the construction, burns for weeks inside until the whole structure is baked and ready to be dismantled and the bricks sold.
The road deteriorated greatly as the bus was able to average no more than ten kilometres per hour until we arrived at the small village of Kodlapadkal, a remote settlement where we were told no other tourists had been before. The only white people seen there in the last ten years were some research workers with the United Nations. All the houses were made of mud with thatched roofs and everything was incredibly neat and clean. The dirt alleys were swept and there was no refuse lying around like you see in the cities. As we have experienced with most country folk, these people were warm and friendly and as curious to see us as we were to see them. We were all acutely aware of the importance of not behaving in a manner that would disturb their way of life, which appeared to us nothing short of idyllic. We observed them going about their daily chores, making pots, weaving matting, children playing, old people chatting. The villagers entertained us and we them for an hour and a half until we farewelled them. Everyone was quite quiet on the bus, just cherishing our experience and hoping that as civilization encroaches upon this remote area, the inhabitants benefit from the good aspects of progress and are not demeaned by the greedy, bad and ugly.
The bus pulled up beside a huge tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) and Satish and the driver laid out the enormous red rugs on the ground under the shade of its spreading branches. There is a belief that tamarind trees emit harmful, acrid vapours, making it unsafe to sleep under them and that plants will not grow there due to the acidity exhaled from the tree overnight. This may be why there is usually little vegetation around their bases, creating an ideal picnic spot in the middle of a hot Indian March day. Tamarind trees bear 10cm long fruits that are knobbly, light-brown pods containing an acidic pulp that surrounds about 10 shiny, smooth, dark brown, angular seeds, measuring roughly 4mm x 10mm. The bulbous, knuckle-like pod has a brittle shell, which when broken away reveals a pale-tan, sticky mass with longitudinal strings and fibrous veins attached. Upon coming into contact with the air, the pulp begins to oxidise and turns dark brown and almost black. Its aroma is vaguely fruity and sharp while the flavour is intensely acidic, tingling, refreshing and reminiscent of dried stone fruit. Tamarind is arguably the most popular souring agent in Indian cooking after lime or lemon. I like to make a refreshing soft drink by adding soda water and ice cubes to a tablespoon of tamarind water with a little sugar.
The hour or so spent over the very un-Indian hotel packed lunch of sandwiches, fresh fruit and hard-boiled eggs, passed with relaxed conversation and some hilarity under our tamarind tree. We wanted to thank the villagers of Kodlakalpal for their hospitality, so after consultation with Satish, we passed the hat around and made a donation to a fund that had been established to install a pump for their well.
With memories of a far off primitive village already beginning to fade from the onslaught of new experiences, our flight touched-down in Ahmedabad, northwest of Bombay and the closest we came to the Pakistan border.
At this time of year (March) before the monsoon, Ahmedabad was a dustbowl with so much air pollution that we kept the windows of the bus closed in spite of the heat. In stark contrast to our earlier sub-tropical adventures, we were surrounded by a dry, undulating landscape, reminiscent of Australia’s wheat belt. Just perfect conditions for seed crops. I can never doze on a bus because if I do I might miss something, such as a cart piled precariously high with a dry, mobile haystack of mustard straw and pulled by an equally straw-coloured haughty-looking camel. A group of women in bright saris, like bougainvillea flowers against the colourless background, working on road repairs. As the bus flashed past I caught glimpses of deep, beautiful eyes, their languid pupils suspended in bright contrasting whites. We received glistening broad smiles in dusky upturned faces as they paused from work and looked up at our out-of-place, peering-from-bus-window group hurtling by. The roads were as congested as any we had seen. The bus would frantically toot and weave its way through a tangle of pushcarts, camel and oxen drawn drays and light three-wheeler ‘auto rickshaws’ piled high with goods. Every now and then we’d inch past lumbering, suspension-challenged ‘Tata’ trucks that look just like 1950’s Mercedes trucks but bearing a large “T” on the bonnet instead of a three-pointed star. Another result of India cleverly buying outdated tooling to establish manufacturing as they did with the Morris Oxford, turning it into their Ambassador car.
Something a group of tourists has to come to terms with in India is that every city does not have a five-star hotel. When we arrived at the hotel Cama, reputed to be the best hotel in town, we saw a few jaws drop. It was characterised by flaking paint, mould marks on the walls, uneven floors, doors and door jambs that had seen far better days and a general atmosphere of resignation as to how wear and tear, the harsh summers and prolonged monsoons, all take their toll on a building. The beds were chiropractically firm, yet it was pleasing to discover how impeccably clean the bathrooms were. What endeared us most to the management at the Cama was their hospitality and efforts to make us comfortable. The chef had researched where we had come from and knowing that Australia had been a colony of England, went to great lengths to provide a meal of fish and chips followed by boiled pudding and custard. We appreciated their kindness but wished they’d served the food they are comfortable with preparing every day. Although the fish and chips left a lot to be desired (the cooking oil that is just perfect for Indian cooking is probably not the most appropriate medium to cook fish and chips in) the boiled pudding was fabulous. The next day we were treated to steak and mushroom pie followed by trifle (non-alcoholic). The other aspect our group of cheerful travellers had to come to terms with was that Gujerat is a ‘dry’ state. India has a number of states where alcohol is not allowed and we gathered from what we were told, that this occurs when a state is governed by Moslems. That means no alcohol is for sale or available in the hotel. No doubt our brain cells appreciated a few days respite from us slaking our thirsts with large amber bottles of cold Kingfisher beer in the less restrictive states.
We had made sure everyone was comfortable for the night, arranged wake-up calls for the morning and discussed the next day’s itinerary with Dr. Metha from the agricultural university at Jagadon, and a specialist in spices. No sooner were we asleep than, close to midnight, we heard the most incredible commotion in the street outside. Guns were going off, shouting and screams were punctuating the air and the percussion of sticks on tin reverberated through our flaking walls. Now the Gulf War was not long past and the underlying general feeling of anxiety while travelling was probably a bit more heightened than usual. “Bloody hell” I said to Liz as I shot bolt upright in bed with a start. “What on earth’s going on, has world war three started, what about our group, shit!” We sprang out of bed, tentatively pulling the curtains aside, peering out so as not to be seen by the rioting mob and surveyed what we expected to be a scene of bloody devastation. Instead, in the street below we saw a group of about fifty revelers, including a bevy of beautiful young women in red and gold saris. The cause of so much hubub in the dead of night we were informed matter-of-factly the next day, was a wedding procession.
Dr. Mehta met us early next morning to travel to the Spices Research Station and hopefully we would have time to see the spice market town of Unja in the afternoon. Dr. Mehta was a neat, short man with a pencil-thin moustache on the lower part of his top lip. He wore thick-lensed, black-framed spectacles, navy trousers and leather sandals. Like so many Indians in this hot and dusty environment, his spotlessly white shirt was impeccable and freshly ironed. Dr. Mehta had recently hosted an Australian from The South Australian Seed Grower’s Co-operative (SEEDCO) a few days earlier, and having developed somewhat of a rapport with one of our countrymen, felt very much at ease with our group. The visitor from SEEDCO was on a study mission because South Australia had developed a substantial coriander seed growing industry in its wheat producing areas and was keen to exchange information with the Indians. Instead of harvesting by hand, Australia’s coriander seed crop is harvested with wheat headers, making production in a country with high labour costs economically viable. Unfortunately for the visitor from South Australia, he had been a little too adventurous with his choice of eating establishments, and had succumbed to a major dose of ‘Delhi belly’ that culminated in him cutting short his stay. We prayed no such fate would befall us.
As we approached the Spices Research Station the earthy, familiar spicy aroma of cumin, tinged with the smell of wood-smoke from cooking fires, was in the air. Our first encounter upon arrival was a display of spices with statistics that I lapped up, while our group politely showed interest that was genuine but did not quite match my own. Seed spices represent about ten percent of India’s export of spices, which by 1991 was approaching 90,000 tonnes. Dr. Mehta explained how their research focused on three main areas, crop improvement, agronomics and plant protection.
Crop improvement came first, because as any farmer knows the search for varieties that are robust, high yielding and practical to harvest is a never-ending one. Agronomics relates to planting methods, timing and general plant husbandry, which will lead to high productivity. All of this work can be rendered useless, if the crops are then attacked by pests or diseases. Plant protection therefore is another essential aspect in their research, which we were impressed to learn included organic farming methods. The notion of organic farming (an oversimplification being farming without chemicals) had begun to gain some attention in India over recent years. This was because some exporters had experienced rejection of their shipments due to chemical residues. What really got up the Indian’s noses was the fact that the countries rejecting their produce were the very same nations that had been selling chemicals to the Indians in the first place.
Those of us in Western countries have an annoying habit of imposing stricter standards on developing countries as we become more financially secure than they are. We can afford the luxury of picking and choosing just what we believe is ‘morally’ right and will best suit our sensitive systems. Modern technology has also made it possible to measure residues in ‘parts per billion’ as opposed to the older ‘parts per million’, creating an awareness of residues we never even thought of in the past. I have no problem with us continuing to strive to improve standards in the interest of public health and wellbeing. I do have a problem however when we sanctimoniously chastise producers and block their sources of income without providing practical advice on alternatives. As it turns out, the Spices Board has made considerable progress with organic farming methods. Although only a handful of producers are certified organic, it appears that this method of farming may be one of the most practical ways to prevent crop rejection by overseas buyers.
In India many crops, and spices in particular, are not grown on large sweeping plantations, but they are cultivated on small family-run holdings that may be less than one hectare in size. For this reason Dr. Mehta and his field officers have to conduct their research in a manner that is relative to the small farmer. There is no point in coming up with high-technology solutions that no one would have the resources to implement. The field officers then go out to the farmers and painstakingly explain and demonstrate the most basic and useful facts that will help them continue to improve the quality and yield of their crops. For example, some cultivars (different strains within a species) that bear more seeds per plant will increase the yield per hectare. Drying the harvested seed heads in a shaded area, no matter how crudely constructed, will produce better looking, more fully flavoured seeds.
Soon it was time to stride out among the rows of orderly trial plantings. Coriander plants, grown for maximum yield of seeds and looking unusually straggly and lean compared to that lush plant at home we tend to only grow for its leaves, beckoned us with their seed-laden umbels. Members of this family of plants were referred to as Umbelliferae because the seeds are borne in umbrella-shaped flower-heads.
Fresh Coriander Seeds
Botanical names provide a system of plant classification that is universally accepted. The first attempt at classifying plants was made by Theophrastus in the 4th century BC. Theophrastus classified plants as either; herbs, shrubs or trees. At this time ‘herb’ was merely a reference to the plant size, rather than an indication of any culinary or medicinal attributes which tends to be the basis today. Carl Linnaeus made the next significant and enduring step in 1753, in which his ‘Species Plantatum’ noted differences in the form of flowers. The drawback with this method is that it is based on the notion of grouping plants based on one particular characteristic, which does not necessarily indicate the true genetic commonality with other similar plants. Therefore in recent times many botanical and family names have been changed and the family Umbelliferae are now referred to as Apiaceae. We saw plots where fourteen different varieties of coriander (Coriandrum sativum) were grown, the ones with consistent yields over four years being given the nod to graduate into ongoing production. We saw rudimentary drying frames, shaded with thatch to let the air flow freely and dry the hanging bunches of seeds, but still protect them from sunlight, that would lead to bleaching out colour and loss of flavour.
Even the simple task of drying herbs and spices can be incredibly involved and there is usually a lot more to it than just putting them out in the sun to dry. Drying, or dehydration as we call it in the trade, is the process whereby most of the moisture is removed while retaining the volatile oils that give the herb or spice its flavour. When it is dried a herb will have a moisture content of between ten and twelve percent, as opposed to over eighty percent when it is fresh. The low moisture level then acts as a preservative, because without water mould and other bacteria that would rot the vegetative matter cannot survive. The challenge, whether drying some fennel seeds, chillies or fenugreek leaves is to remove the moisture as quickly as possible. Too slow and mould will start growing before it is dry, too fast and the heat used to dry something quickly will drive off the volatile oils and destroy the flavour. What’s more, every item will behave differently. Chillies have a thick, glossy skin that does not let moisture out easily, yet surprisingly parsley leaves let go of their water content readily making drying in a dark place with the application of a little heat dead easy.
I remember my father making a drying rack for herbs that was particularly effective. We had a roadside stall at Dural, a rural area about fifty kilometres northwest of Sydney, and Dad would dry various herbs to pack into bottles and sell, or use in making pot-pourri. He made the drying rack by constructing a frame; four metres long, two metres wide and about two hundred millimetres deep. Fly screen was stretched across the bottom, so air could circulate freely around the herbs as they dried out. The really ingenious yet simple idea that made this work so well was a system of pulleys attached to the ceiling of the stall with ropes that Dad attached to each corner of the frame. When it was full of leaves Dad would “Raise the boom” taking the cargo up close to the ceiling where it was dark and warm. Hot air rises (as you will notice if you climb a ladder to change a lightbulb in winter when the room heater is on) and so in this dark, warm environment the herbs dried perfectly. To check them, Dad would “Clear the decks and lower the boom” and if crisp and dry, another harvest would be raked up with a little wooden ‘croupier’s’ shovel he had made from plywood. I spent much of my childhood with a father who was constantly working out ways to solve lots of little problems that cropped up while trying to dry herbs and spices. For this reason I felt completely at home with these Indians, who were solving lots of day to day issues in a practical manner.
We strolled through waist-high drifts of white ajowan flowers (Trachyspermum amni) often referred to as bishop’s weed, that would produce the tiny brown seeds. Ajowan actually contains the world’s highest source of thymol, the volatile oil that gives the herb thyme its flavour and has been used medicinally for centuries to relieve coughs and congestion. Until the early 20th century, almost all of the production of ajowan seeds was sent to Germany for the distillation of the oil and extraction of thymol. Their herb-like, savoury flavour is delicious in vegetable and seafood curries.
Liz lost sight of me when I disappeared into a stand of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), a group of exotic, high-yielding flowers covered with cloth to prevent cross-pollination with other varieties. In the warming sun, the sounds of bees, and the aroma of crushed foliage as I pushed through row upon row of seed spices, reminded me of a childhood spent among herbs and their fragrances. No wonder I always feel so comfortable in this environment.
I was delighted to find fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) ready to harvest. Its common names, ‘goat’s horn’ and ‘cow’s horn’ refers to the horn-like shape of its seed pod, which looks like a miniature broad bean and contains ten to twenty hard, light-brown seeds. These seeds smell of green peas. No wonder, it belongs to the same family as beans and peas, and has a sharp sweetness like maple syrup. I was therefore not surprised to discover that an extract of fenugreek seeds is used to make imitation maple syrup. Next time you smell some fenugreek seeds, shut your eyes, inhale and think of maple syrup, you’ll be amazed. A lot of cooks will tell you to dry-roast fenugreek seeds in a hot pan before you use them when making a curry, it is a good idea but just be careful not to over roast them though, because if you do the taste becomes extremely bitter and unpalatable. Fenugreek leaves are also used in Indian cooking to impart ‘beany’ fenugreek flavour with less sharpness and bitterness. When the leaves are used they are generally referred to as ‘methi’.
The aroma of cumin (Cuminum cyminum) was still lingering in the air, and as we came upon another area within the Research Station we realised why. A group of women in colourful saris, standing out against the neutral shades of earth, fields of ready-to-harvest crops and pale, heat-hazed sky like colourful blossoms, were winnowing the fine 2mm tails from rubbed seeds. You see, cumin seeds are pale-brown to khaki in colour and have a downy surface giving them a dull appearance. Each seed has a fine, hair-like tail attached to it and these ladies were rubbing the seeds across the palms of their hands to remove this tail, then letting a hand-full fall past a primitive fan that blew the fine particles away, while the seeds fell to the ground. A wonderfully simple method of winnowing. Dr. Mehta beckoned to me as I was about to plunge among a row of yellow-flowered dill plants (Anethum sowa) and informed us that we had better move on if we were to get to Unja and see more spices. See more spices, how could I resist?
On the way we wondered why an oxen pulling a cart was being driven round in a circle over what looked like a big pile of straw. When we got closer we saw they were threshing brown mustard seeds (Brassica juncea). The mustard had been harvested when the seed-bearing pods were fully developed but not yet ripe. This is because ripe pods will shatter during gathering and many seeds would be lost. After cutting, the mustard ‘hay’ is stacked in sheaves to dry and then threshed by simply laying it on the ground and driving an ox-cart over the pile to break the pods and release the seeds.
Off to one side three young men were holding an enormous sieve, about two metres in diameter, and were standing in a calf-deep pile of shiny, brown mustard seeds as another worker loaded more trampled hay onto the gyrating sieve. The young fellows were all smiles and highly amused by our interest in their menial task. Although these seeds are brown, they are often called black mustard seeds. This is because there is a variety named Brassica nigra that looks identical and has a slightly stronger flavour, but its seedpods shatter very easily, making it difficult to harvest and so less popular as a crop.
Over the next rise we were treated to a scene I had not even been game to hope for. An area the size of two football fields stretched out before us, that was bright red with chillies (Capsicum annum) drying in the sun. Hundreds of growers were bringing their produce of ripe, fiery chillies from their tiny plots and selling them to the buyer who was drying and preparing them for the market. The variety of chilli grown in this area is long and thin and called ‘rasham patta’. We noticed a fellow sitting on the ground with a pile of chillies in front of him that still had their stems attached. His job was to remove the stems from the chillies in that pile, and then move on to another lot to be de-stemmed. The chillies with their stems removed were then laid out on the ground to dry and cure in the sun. Curing, that is slow drying after picking, is an important element in chilli production as it concentrates the colour and aids development of flavour. A lot of folk don’t know that a dried chilli has a very different flavour than a fresh one. A bit like the difference between a fresh tomato and a sun-dried tomato, the sugars in chillies caramelise during drying and create a rich, robust and quite complex flavour. For this reason, most Indian recipes will use dried chilli in preference to fresh. Observing this immense area of chillies drying out in the sun, we said to the foreman “What do you do if it rains?” To which he replied in a tone of unswerving confidence, “It won’t rain until the 14th of April.” Liz thought there was a definite opening in Australia for him as a weather forecaster.
These chillies were destined, as we were, for the market town of Unja or as I would like to call it ‘Spice Heaven’. A town dedicated to chillies, turmeric and garlic. Whole roads and alleys with every warehouse brimming with hessian bags bursting at the seams as if the chillies were trying to escape from their twine bonds like flesh struggling for release from an over-tight corset. The aroma of chilli and its hot, sinus-clearing, throat-searing substance called capsaicin permeated the air. Everyone in the group coughed, gasped and wheezed and high-tailed it back to the bus leaving Andrew (a delightful young man and spice trader from Brisbane who had joined our tour), Liz and me to continue exploring this Aladdin’s cave of lane-ways, go-downs and old-fashioned, one-ton, beam-balance scales. Workers wearing sarongs were stripped to their waists, feet bare and carrying huge bags of chillies over their shoulders, seemingly oblivious to the eye-watering, skin-irritating effect of their potent loads. I could not help but imagine I was in Ahmedabad in the 1620’s, when trade with the British East India Company was in its heyday. As it must have been then, all around one was a hive of bustling industry and commerce, shouts of bargaining and cursing idle labourers, punctuated by the clunking thuds of overladen drays traversing rutted streets. The preponderance of manual labour, beasts of burden, earthen carriageways, crude wooden carts with Biblical wooden wheels and overflowing spice-filled go-downs, re-confirmed that we must have actually travelled back in time.
We walked up a narrow lane that was more atmospheric than a movie set replicating a 17th Century trading post. The wooden balconies were leaning out from crooked, haphazard, ‘never seen a coat of paint’ buildings. Structures weathered over the years to natural timber shades of greys, fawns and browns. We came upon a go-down run by a trader who looked as if he was a direct descendant of the Moors, and followed Dr. Mehta inside.
Dr. Mehta introduced us to this trader who happened to be the local member of the Spices Board. The government body we were to have a lot more contact with in the future thanks to the help of the young Mr. Thampi (later be Dr. Thampi) whom I had met in New Delhi in 1986. The old, white-clad patriarch was sitting in a little, air-conditioned box at a desk with a big window in front of him, where he could watch everything that was going on and could summon his minions from outside with the press of an insistent buzzer. He reminded us of a corpulent spider sitting in his web, surveying all before him and not missing out on the most minute detail of a trade in chillies happening to the front of his go-down, or a sale of turmeric in another dark corner of his domain. No sleight of hand on the scales from an employee doing deals on the side, or a quick fiddle with the cash and change would escape his gaze. We were given ‘Thumbs-up’ soft-drinks as we sat around his highly-polished desk in the tiny office. “Now we can supply you with all your spice needs from now on,” we were assured before our departure, eyes and noses streaming as we hurried back to the bus.
The encounter with chillies drying on the bare ground really brought home to me the issues discussed at the World Spice Congress in 1986 about cleanliness and bacterial contamination. It also highlighted how difficult it must be for the producers who have been processing chillies in this way for at least three or four centuries, to learn their methods are no longer acceptable. They are now learning to dry spices on woven mats, Spices Board field officers even showing them how to make the mats, instead of on the bare earth. We departed this part of India with a very different perspective on the first impressions we encountered on arriving in Ahmedabad. What seemed to us initially to be dry, dusty and smokey, turned out to be a landscape dotted with diversity. The bright colours of chillies drying in the sun, beautiful dark-skinned women with engaging, sparkling smiles, dressed in elegant bright saris, the perfume of spices and home cooking hanging in the air. The dedication and passion of people like Dr. Mehta and the work performed at such a purely basic level by the Indian Spices Board, left us humbled and hopeful that these people will achieve their aspirations in an increasingly complex and technological world.
Spice Travels is now out of print, however the complete book is available at Amazon.com to download onto your e-reader.