Smells and Momentum

Spices Part 1: Seeds and Pods


As I said before, any seasoning that isn’t an herb is a spice, which means we have a lot of plant parts to work with. Today we’re talking about seeds and pods, specifically seeds and pods from that list of elementary seasonings I gave you earlier.


NUTMEG: Nutmeg is the seed of a tree that is native to the aptly named Spice Islands. Historically nutmeg was an Indian Ocean trade commodity, introduced to the Western World by Arab traders. During the Middle Ages people got really excited about nutmeg, like too excited about it, think antioxidants and you’ll have an idea of the level of bat-shit crazy excitement I’m talking about. Basically all the things we think antioxidants do today, that’s what people thought nutmeg did in the Middle Ages. Needless to say they had no choice but to pay Arab traders through the nose for it, this was because the location of the Spice Islands, also known as the Bandas Islands, was a closely guarded secret. Of course, all of that changed in August of 1511 when Alfonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca in the name of Portugal. Malacca was at that time a central hub of Asian trade and it was not long before the secret was out and an expedition was chartered to the Bandas Islands. The Portuguese were able to acquire nutmeg, mace, and cloves at a severely reduced price due to their new trade routes, however they never gained a strong enough foothold on the islands to control the source entirely, that wouldn’t happen until the Dutch East India Company got involved. Anyway, nutmeg was rad because it was two spices in one, mace comes from the same tree and is in fact the aril (lace covering of a seed) of the tree’s fruit and is very similar to nutmeg but with a more delicate flavor and the ability to dye food orange, much like saffron. Nutmeg finds use in both sweet and savory dishes, making it a very versatile spice. I like to keep it whole and grate it as needed, but you’re not going to ruin a meal with the pre-grated stuff. Buy some, keep it out of the light, standard stuff. Oh right. That was the first time I mentioned the light thing. Sunlight is crazy destructive, keep all your herbs and spices in a cabinet in the dark. 


VANILLA: Unless you live under a very poorly catered rock you’ve probably eaten something flavored with vanilla. Vanilla comes from the fruiting body (a pod) of the vanilla orchid. The vanilla orchid is originally from Mesoamerica where it was first cultivated by the Totonac, and then, along with chocolate, was introduced to the West by Cortes. Attempts to cultivate vanilla outside of Mesoamerica were met with failure due to its symbiotic relationship with the Melipona Bee that serves as its pollinator. In 1841 a twelve year old slave named Edmond Albius discovered that the plant could be hand pollinated, and the method was quickly exploited allowing cultivation along similar latitudes. Today there are four widely exported vanilla varieties; Tahitian, Madagascar, Bourbon, and West Indian vanilla. Vanilla is labor intensive to produce for a number of complicated (obnoxious) reasons. After being harvested, the pods must then be cured (even more obnoxious), and unless you buy whole beans (I know you, you don’t) the vanilla has to be either extracted or sugared. Don’t buy vanilla powder, it is completely without merit. Now as for uses: vanilla is king in the ice cream game, also baked goods. I would normally assert that artificial vanilla flavoring is a gross lignin by-product obtained from wood pulping and paper production (which is true), however it has been argued by better cooks than I that artificial vanillin is better for high heat applications like cookies, due to the fragile nature of organic. If you’re cooking something with lower heat like a cake or brownies you better use real vanilla. 

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