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Issue 57 - Spicing Things Up

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011


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Spicing Things Up

Sue Lawrence brings some exoticism to the kitchen

What on earth did we do without them? We have stirred them into gingerbread, rubbed them into meat and ground them into sauces for centuries. And although in recent years fresh herbs have vied for attention as a flavouring, freshly ground spices still win on aroma, fragrance and above all, exoticism. Whereas parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme conjure up visions of Jemima Puddleduck waddling through meadows or sandal-shod guitarists strumming Scarborough Fair, cardamon, cassia and cumin magically transport us – no doubt on a flying carpet – to a land of belly dancers and banyans.
One of the most exotic, but sadly underrated, spices is mace. It is too often overlooked in favour of its sister spice nutmeg and yet when you see them in their tropical habitat, it is mace with its glorious scarlet hue that outshines the dark brown kernel of nutmeg. The fruit of the nutmeg tree (Myristica Fragrans) resembles a yellow apricot which, when ripe, splits into two halves to expose the brilliant red, lacy mace (technically called the aril) clinging around the nutmeg like a hairnet.
On the Caribbean island of Grenada where it has been grown commercially for some 150 years, and where much of the UK’s supplies come from, I saw farmers ‘rodding’ down those nutmegs that had not already fallen from the trees. The outer ‘pericarp’ is removed and the mace taken and left to dry on mats in the searingly hot sun for a few hours. It is then taken to one of the island’s processing stations to be graded then dried for about four months in wooden chests during which time it changes from scarlet to orangey-yellow. Once packaged, the blades are used whole in infusions or ground and used in recipes as diverse as sausages, savoury butters, pickles and biscuits. Because it is more refined and delicate than nutmeg it is also perfect in potted meats and fish; I particularly like it in potted crab, a classic Scottish dish, which I serve warm straight from the pan, but it is also excellent chilled in individual ramekins.
Spice mixtures, from our own gentle ‘mixed spice’ to North Africa’s fiery harissa, add a distinctive flavour to many local dishes. Egyptian ‘dukkah’ is one that is also extremely versatile. A loose mixture of spices (usually coriander and cumin), seeds and nuts, it is eaten as an appetiser, by dipping a hunk of bread into olive oil then into the dukkah. But it also makes an excellent rub for chicken, quail, poussin or guinea fowl. Once grilled (or barbecued) it can be eaten warm, but is also delicious cold with picnics.
The final spice in today’s medley is cardamom, a spice that lives a nefarious double life. Sultry, warm and exotic in Indian biryani or Arabic coffee, it also has a more functional role in chilly Finland where ‘kardemumma’ has livened up cakes and buns for centuries. Apart from using it in baking, I often incorporate cardamom into chocolate recipes – dark and white. The white chocolate brittle is truly memorable served for pudding beside a bountiful bowl of juicy red raspberries. Try it.
For individual spices and spice blends , go to: