NEWSLETTER: Summer 2002/2003

December 01, 2002 posted in Newsletters

Our Latest Journey to Spain

In spite of those who would have us live in fear, we have recently returned from a fascinating, stimulating trip to Spain, where we were royally looked after by our Spanish paprika supplier. Paprika grows in the very dry southern and south-west areas of Spain, and is picked twice in a season. After being harvested, the fresh paprikas, looking like small, roundish capsicums, are taken to a shed were the stems are removed by hand. The bright red fruits are torn in half then spread over expansive concreted areas (with plastic sheeting at the ready on the sidelines in case of unexpected rain). If you break a fresh paprika open and tear right down into the placenta holding the seeds, it is possible to judge the sweetness and quality from the colour – a red center will indicate a sweeter paprika than a pale one. We haven’t tried it with red capsicums, but the rule is probably the same.

Saffron Festival

Whilst in Spain, we also went to a small country town called Consuegra, just an hour’s drive from Toledo, where they hold an annual Saffron Festival. Saffron is a lovely little purple crocus, which blooms in the autumn for just a couple of weeks. During these weeks, the flowers are picked by hand (back-breaking work!), then the three precious deep red stigmas are removed by hand from the centre of the flowers. As you can imagine, it’s very desirable to have someone with deft fingers to remove the stigmas as quickly and efficiently as possible, so at the Festival, people from several surrounding villages came to compete in saffron-picking races. Not only speed, but also accuracy in picking only the stigmas and not the bright yellow stamens, was judged, and competitors lost a point for each stigma left behind or each stamen picked in error. On the second day, there was a cooking competition in the carpark beside the church. Once again, groups from surrounding villages took part, each group of five or six people setting up little fires and pots, to make traditional local fare, preferably using saffron. Despite the language problems, we found that if we stood looking interested and sufficiently hungry, people would proffer a hunk of bread with which we were invited to scoop up a taste of what was cooking. Heavily salted and rich in garlic, paprika and olive oil, they proved to be excellent tapas preceding a memorable lunch shared from the same pot with over a thousand locals


Lunch was paella, cooked in the world’s largest paella pan of about 4 metres diameter. From the time the fire was lit under it, we watched and waited for four hours while olive oil, chicken, snails, broad beans, capsicums, tomatoes, about a kilo of paprika, over one hundred kilos of rice, ten milk cans full of water, and various other ingredients were added and stirred and simmered. To our disappointment, not even a thread of saffron was added as a courtesy to the Festival – like most commercial paellas, yellow colouring was used instead. (Perhaps the operators were hoping for a donation of saffron for the occasion!) Under the watchful eye of two uniformed policemen, the crowd of probably 1200 people filed past with extremely commendable restraint to receive a free high-piled plate of the result, wonderful!

New! Grains of Paradise

The pile of work waiting for us on our arrival back in Australia was offset by the excitement of the arrival of our first-ever shipment of Grains of Paradise. This elusive spice has been the subject of a quest since before the opening of Herbie’s back in 1997, and finally a source has been found in Sierra Leone.
Not only was the source found, but the postal system from there finally got the precious seeds on their way to us, some months after payment for them had been made. More waiting was incurred while the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service viewed them with unease and suspicion, but – hoorah! – they are now in our possession.
Grains of Paradise are also called Melegueta Pepper, and are small blackish-brown seeds with a spicy flavour somewhere between pepper and cardamom. Probably a little pungent to use on their own, they are often included in Ras el Hanout mixtures, as well as spice mixes for Tunisian cooking. One might suppose that the name Grains of Paradise might indicate an effect similar to Ecstacy, but the name has a more prosaic meaning. When it was traded in the middle ages as a pepper substitute, many people knew the little seeds came from somewhere far-away and exotic, but didn’t know exactly where, so Paradise was as good a name as any for their place of origin.

A Christmas Hint

Well, sales of Quatre Epices (sweet) and Mixed Spice tell us that Christmas is approaching once again. Customers making traditional German Lubkuchen (gingerbread) find that the Quatre Epices gives a more genuine flavour then the milder Mixed Spice blend. For a spicier flavour in cakes in puddings, you could use both blends in a 50/50 mixture.

Fail-Safe Shortcuts

As this year of disasters draws to a close, there is a move towards “coocooning,” that is, staying close to home with one’s loved ones. There is comfort and security in sharing lovingly-prepared meals with close friends and family. Even so, time spent lingering with special people is more valuable than time spent doing the loving preparation, so our many spice blends can do a lot of the work for you.

For instance, here are a few fail-safe short cuts:

  • Combine Thai spice mix with dressing for quick Thai beef salad
  • Dust shelled green prawns with Balmain-Rozelle spice before cooking – no marinating time is necessary
  • Add Paella spice mix to your stock to make a better-than-average paella (believe us, we’ve done the comparison!)
  • Make barbecued meats really tasty (without MSG) by using any of these: Tasty Meat Sprinkle, Cajun, Chermoula, Greek Seasoning, Jerk Seasoning, Native Barbecue, Bushman’s Pepperpot, Ras el Hanout, or Smokey Barbecue.
  • For salads, remember Lemon and Herb Pepper, Sumac, Salad Herbs, Lemon Myrtle, and Turkish Mint.

A Christmas idea

After Bali, people are re-evaluating the importance of material possessions. So perhaps instead of giving of that Porsche you had in mind, a Herbie’s spice kit might actually be more appreciated! We’ve included a list of what’s available so that you can mail order … but please don’t leave it to the last minute!

Spicy Christmas season to you all!

Herbie and Liz

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