15. Sep, 2015

The Spice of Life

"Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a missionary." - Walter Benjamin.

The history of modern South Africa was largely shaped by mankind’s craving for spices. Had it not been for the quest for a sea route from Western Europe to the spice emporiums of the East, Western settlement and colonisation would probably have begun much later, and left far less of a legacy. The “refreshment station” the Dutch established at the Cape in 1652 was essentially a halfway house for the spice fleets of the Dutch East Indies Company. One of the consequences of this arrangement was that white South African cuisine incorporated spices to a far greater extent than its European or North American equivalents.

According to Wikipedia, a spice is “a dried seed, fruit, root, bark or vegetable substance primarily used for flavouring, colouring or preserving food”. Spices are distinguished from herbs, which are parts of leafy green plants used for flavouring or as a garnish. Many spices have antimicrobial properties. This may explain why spices are more commonly used in warmer climates, where infectuous diseases are most common, and why the use of spices is prominent in meat, which is particularly susceptible to spoiling.

Spices are available in several forms: fresh, whole dried, or pre-ground dried. Generally, spices are dried. A whole dried spice has the longest shelf life, so it can be purchased and stored in larger amounts, making it cheaper on a per-serving basis. Some spices are not always available either fresh or whole, for example turmeric, and often must be purchased in ground form. Small seeds, such as fennel and mustard seeds, are often used both whole and in powder form.

The flavour of a spice is derived in large part from volatile oils that evaporate and oxidise when exposed to air. Grinding a spice greatly increases its surface area and so increases the rates of oxidation and evaporation. Its flavour is maximised by storing a spice whole and grinding when needed. The shelf life of a whole dry spice is roughly two years; of a ground spice roughly six months. Ground spices are better stored away from light. Some flavour elements in spices are soluble in water; many are soluble in oil or fat. As a general rule, the flavors from a spice take time to infuse into the food so spices are added early in preparation.

Because of its history and diverse population mix, South Africa uses a wide variety of spices. Let me introduce you to the most commonly used ones.

Anise or aniseed (Pimpinella anisum) is an aromatic spice that imparts a distinct flavour of licorice and is commonly used to make the liqueurs Ouzo, Anisette, and Pernod. Anise is used in cookies and cakes, and a sprinkling of the seeds adds an unusual twist to fruit salads, particularly those utilizing citrus fruits. Try adding anise to fruit pies, relishes and chutneys, and dark breads. In Indian cuisine, anise is occasionally used in pilafs and braised dishes.

In South Africa, one of the quintessential foods containing anise is traditional “boerebeskuit” or rusks. It is also used in several spicy Roti fillings, Biscotti, Nawabi Curry, Paneer Kofta and on Tandoori Nan bread.

Allspice is the dried, unripe berry of Pimenta dioica, an evergreen tree in the myrtle family native to the West Indies and Central America. Christopher Columbus discovered allspice in the Caribbean. He had never actually seen real pepper and mistook allspice for it. He took it back to Spain, where it got the name pimienta, which is Spanish for pepper. Its name probably reflects its flavor, which has a hint of the flavors of several spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. It is most commonly sold in ground form, though the whole berry is available in spice shops and is used in pickling and to flavor broths and marinades.

In South Africa, allspice is widely used, in foods as diverse as curries, couscous dishes, Christmas cakes, boerewors and barbecued spare ribs. The mildly spicy-sweet flavour of ground allspice enhances apple desserts, banana breads, spice cakes, cookies, chutneys, and recipes utilising squash, pumpkin, or sweet potatoes.

Caraway seeds are produced by Carum carvi, a biennial plant related to carrots and native to Europe. The “spice” is actually not a seed, but tiny fruits. These have a sharp, distinctive taste that puts them in the category of flavourings that are either loved or intensely disliked. They are best known for adding zest to rye and pumpernickel breads, flavouring potatoes or other root vegetables (such as parsnips) as well as cabbage varieties.

In South Africa, caraway is not a premier spice. It is nevertheless used in artisanal breads, soups with Central/East European origins like German Lentil Soup and Polish Borscht, and in sauerkraut.

Cardamom are the seed pods of Elettaria cardamomum, an orchid native to India. It is available in whole or ground form; green (natural) or white (bleached). Bought whole, the seed pods must be opened, revealing several small, dark seeds. These aromatic are appropriate for both sweet and savory dishes. The whole seeds lend an aromatic quality to starch-rich dishes like grain or rice pilafs and curries containing potatoes or peas. In ground form, cardamom may be used in the same sort of baked goods in which one would use allspice - squash, pumpkin, or sweet-potato pies, for example.

In South Africa, cardamom is one of the more popular spices. It features regularly in South Indian curries, baklava, all manner of fruity desserts, and Mediterranean lamb tagines and roasts.

The Cayenne pepper, also known in its powdered form as red pepper, is a cultivar of Capsicum annuum related to paprika. It is named after the city of Cayenne in French Guiana. It is one of the hottest of ground spices, and a small amount goes a very long way. Cayenne is used to impart fiery flavour to Mexican, Indian, and some Southeast Asian cuisines and is also useful in spicing Creole and Cajun specialties. Cayenne pepper lends itself to vegetable or bean stews, curries, chilies, spicy cold noodle dishes, and hot-and-sour dishes. It also has proven health benefits, chiefly due to its high capsaicin content. Capsaicin ingestion dilates the blood vessels and speeds up the metabolism, which in turn causes weight loss.

In South Africa Cayenne pepper is a popular spice in a variety of guises. It is a key ingredient in a variety of hot sauces, particularly those employing vinegar as a preservative. Cayenne pepper is also often used to add oomph to mild curries or sprinkled over cooked dishes or salads to add a spicy flavour.

Chilli powder is a blend of spices with dried, ground red chillies (Capsicum spp.) as its base. The blends available in Indian or Chinese supermarkets, spice shops, and natural-food stores will be more robust and aromatic than those bought in supermarkets; you will also be able to choose from among milder and hotter varieties. The standard ingredients, along with chili pepper, include garlic, cumin, coriander and salt. Chilli powder adds depth of flavour to bean stews and soups, and enhances some Oriental-style sauces such as peanut or sesame sauce for noodles.

In South Africa, chilli powder is a perennial curry ingredient, and widely used in the peri-peri marinade for spatchcock chicken and the basting for “LM Prawns”. It also features in many “Tex-Mex” recipes.

Cinnamon is derived from the dried inner bark of the cassia tree (Cinnamomum verum), a small evergreen. One of the earliest spices recorded, cinnamon is also one of the most familiar and commonly used. A sweet, aromatic spice, cinnamon is often a component of curry blends and is a fixture in confectionary like puddings, cakes, cookies, and fruit pies. Squash, pumpkin and sweet potatoes, whether in fritters or as side dishes, always benefit from a sprinkling of cinnamon. Whole cinnamon sticks add aroma to stewing fruits and simmering beverages, such as hot mulled cider.

Apart from its utilisation in desserts and confectionary, South African cooks also use it to add the final touch to two of our favourite Indian dishes, Durban Curry and Madras Lamb Curry.

Cloves are a pleasant, sweet spice like cinnamon, but have a stronger flavor and a sharp aroma. Whole cloves are the buds of the evergreen clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum). Stewed fruits benefit from a handful of whole cloves while they are simmering, and fragrant pilafs are made even more so by addition of some whole cloves. Do not leave the cloves in the dishes you are making - you and your guests will not enjoy biting into one, since the taste is seriously bitter. Ground cloves are often used in conjunction with cinnamon in baked goods, fruit pies, and squash, sweet-potato, and pumpkin recipes. Cloves enhance the flavour of apples and bananas in desserts, and are often used in curries and chutneys.

In South Africa, cloves have been put to both culinary and medicinal use since the Dutch era (1652 – 1806). It was especially useful as a mild pain killer; especially against the then omnipresent scourge of toothache. It is nowadays also commonly used to take the “gamy” edge off offal and venison, and in most boerewors recipes.  

Cocoa powder is a mixture of the substances remaining after cocoa butter is extracted from the cocoa bean. The “beans” are the pips of the Cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) originally found in tropical South America.  Cocoa butter is 50% to 57% of the weight of cocoa beans and gives chocolate its characteristic melting properties. Chocolate requires the addition of extra cocoa butter to cocoa liquor, and the excess cocoa solids resulting from chocolate production keeps the price of cocoa powder relatively low. This contrasts with the earliest European usage of cocoa where, before chocolate became popular, cocoa powder was the primary product and cocoa butter was little more than a by-product. Cocoa is rich in flavanols, which are linked to certain health benefits, like reducing the risk of cardio-vascular diseases and strokes. It has also been suggested that flavanols reduce blood pressure and insulin resistance.

Although using cocoa or chocolate in meat dishes (often in tandem with chillies) is common in Central America, not even the ravishing Juliette Binoche could convince South Africans that it is a good idea. We do nevertheless compensate for it by consuming copious amounts of milk and dark chocolate, and cocoa-based desserts and confectionary.

Coconut. The coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) is a member of the palm family. The term “coconut” can refer to the entire coconut palm, the seed, or the fruit. The name is derived from the 16th-century Portuguese and Spanish word coco meaning "head" or "skull", from the three indentations on the coconut shell that resemble facial features. The various parts of the coconut have a number of culinary uses. The seed provides oil for frying, cooking, and making margarine. The white, fleshy part of the seed, the coconut meat, is used fresh or dried in cooking, especially in confections and desserts such as macaroons. Desiccated coconut or coconut milk made from it is frequently added to curries and other savory dishes.

In South Africa, desiccated coconut is used extensively in confectionary and desserts, as well as in the production of sweets. Curry lovers also sprinkle it on particularly hot dishes.

Coriander (also known as Dhania in India) is the aromatic seed of the herbal plant Coriandrum sativum, the leaves of which are widely known as cilantro. This is a spice whose complex flavor falls somewhere between sweet and spicy. It’s usually one of the three main components of curry mixes along with cumin and turmeric. In Indonesian cookery, coriander is a common seasoning for tempeh recipes. It is an excellent flavouring for bean dishes, and vegetable relishes and hot-sweet chutneys are enhanced by the addition of coriander.

In South Africa, coriander is popular among butchers, hunters and chefs alike. It features in almost all boerewors recipes, biltong seasonings and braai spice mixes.It is also ubiquitous in curries.

Cumin (Cuminum cyninum) is an aromatic spice with a distinctive bitter flavour and strong, warm aroma due to its abundant oil content. Cumin "seeds" are actually the small dried fruit of an annual plant in the parsley family. Native to the Mediterranean, cumin is hotter to the taste, lighter in colour, and larger than caraway, a spice it is sometimes confused with. Cumin is a popular ingredient in Middle Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean and Mexican cuisines, and is one of the main ingredients in curry powder. Its zesty quality also reduces the need for salt.

In South Africa, cumin is used extensively in curry blends and chili powder and is also frequently used in Middle Eastern, Portuguese and Spanish cookery where it is used in soups, tomato-based sauces, bean dishes, and stews. A pinch of cumin in breads is an old European tradition, and one of my favourite cheeses is Leidse Komijnekaas, a mild Dutch cheese flavoured with cumin seeds.

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is an annual herb in the celery family. Dill seed has a flavour reminiscent of caraway, and is used as a spice. Oil from the seeds is distilled and used in the manufacturing of soaps. Dill provides the flavour to dill gherkins: cucumbers preserved in salty brine and/or vinegar. It also makes a good companion for fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, and is a key ingredient in the making of the iconic Scandinavian dish Gravadlax (also known as Gravlax).

In South Africa, dill seed is also much in demand in the pickling industry, and it is widely used in milder Indian curries.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a small, elongated seed that, used whole or ground, imparts a subtle anise or licorice flavour. Fennel seeds are used in some traditional Italian bread recipes and stews. In Indian cookery, they add a pleasant flavour and aroma to grain pilafs and curries. A few fennel seeds tossed into fresh fruit salads add an offbeat twist. Green beans and root vegetables like parsnips benefit from the addition of the whole or ground seeds.

South African curry chefs tend to use either fennel or dill to add a hint of licorice flavour to their dishes. I personally prefer the more subtle dill in this role, but use fennel – both the herbal foliage and seeds – a lot when cooking salmon or trout.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is an annual plant, with leaves consisting of three small oblong leaflets. It is cultivated worldwide as a drought-resistant crop, and its seeds are a common ingredient in dishes from the Indian subcontinent. It is a less common aromatic spice and is actually a legume, something like a mung bean. Its somewhat bitter flavour and strong aroma warrant subtle application. Fenugreek appears as an element of Indian curries and chutneys and is used as a pickling spice in the Far East. Fenugreek is also widely used in Eritrean and Ethiopean cuisine.

In South Africa, fenugreek is a little-known spice, and largely confined to Indian or Ethiopian eateries.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a flowering plant native to China, whose roots are widely used as a spice and a traditional medicine. It grows annual stems about a meter tall bearing narrow green leaves and yellow flowers. Ginger has now spread to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, other parts of Asia, West Africa and the Caribbean. Ginger produces a hot, fragrant kitchen spice. Young ginger roots are juicy and fleshy with a very mild taste. They are often pickled in vinegar or sherry as a snack, or cooked as an ingredient in many dishes. In China, sliced or whole ginger root is often paired with savory dishes such as fish, and chopped ginger root is commonly paired with meat. Sushi lovers consume lots of it, and confectioners use it to add flavour to ginger bread, apple tart and pumpkin pies.

South Africans love ginger, whether with sushi, in ginger ale, liqueurs, biscuits, stewed fruit or curry.

Juniper berries. A juniper berry is the female seed cone produced by the various species of juniper cypress tree. It is not a true berry, but a cone with unusually fleshy and merged scales, which give it a berry-like appearance. The cones from a handful of species, especially Juniperus communis, are used as a spice, particularly in European cuisine, and also provides gin with its distinctive flavour. In North America and Scandinavia it is greatly prized by lovers of venison, who probably learnt about it from Native American hunters, who crushed the berries and cooked them with wild buffalo. They have a tart flavour which cuts back some of the gaminess of venison. In European countries, juniper berries are a necessity for marinades for wild boar, venison, and pork dishes and are also used in stews, whether beef or game. They are also essential for an authentic sauerbraten.

In South Africa, the use of juniper berries is largely limited to game and pork dishes. One of my personal favourites is saucisson sec I make from warthog, and flavour with juniper berries and red wine. Another is a drink I take for medicinal purposes, as it repels malaria mosquitoes…   

Mace, (Myristica fragrans) is a spice made from the waxy red covering that surrounds nutmeg seeds. The nutmeg tree is native to tropical Indonesia, in a region known as the Spice Islands, and parts of Southeast Asia, where it has been used to produce spices for centuries. The flavour is similar to that of nutmeg, with a hint of pepper and a more subtle note which can be overwhelmed by heavy-handed cooks. Whole dried mace is known as a blade; blades are preferable to ground mace since cooks can grind what they need as they need it, preserving the flavour.  Because the flavour is very delicate, blades and ground mace should be carefully stored and added at the end of the cooking process, if possible. Mace can be used much like nutmeg would in cakes, scones and spice cookies. It can also be used in curries, soups, cream sauces, and roasts. Some traditional Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian spice blends also call specifically for mace.

In South Africa, mace is the “poor relation” of nutmeg. Our cooks seem to prefer the bolder flavour of the latter. I for one love the more subtle aroma of mace, and use it extensively in potted shrimps and various pates.

Mustard is a generic term referring to any of several species of the genera Brassica and Sinapis. Grinding and mixing the seeds with water, vinegar and seasoning, creates the yellow condiment known as prepared mustard. The Burgundian capital Dijon has become synonymous with quality mustard, known as “the King of the condiments” in France. The seeds can also be pressed to make mustard oil, and the leaves are eaten in the American South as "Mustard Greens". Available in whole or ground form, the flavor of mustard seeds is subtly hot and slightly biting. Dry mustard is used in soups, salad dressings, grain dishes, potato dishes, chilies, and curries.

Although South Africans do not use dry mustard as much as Europeans, we go gaga for prepared mustard. A rare roast beef or ham sandwich without it would be like a Dry Martini without gin, and hot dogs or boerewors rolls need mustard too.

Nutmeg is the seed of the small pear-shaped fruit of the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) and hence a sibling of mace. The hard, nutlike nutmeg seed is optimally used freshly grated, however, the spice is more commonly sold and used in its dried, ground form. A sweet spice, nutmeg is a familiar flavoring in eggnog, custards, pumpkin and sweet-potato pies, and spice cakes. It is often one of the spices used in curry mixes, and has a special affinity with squashes, spinach and morogo.

In South Africa nutmeg is a popular ingredient in boerewors, curry and potato dishes. I also use it a lot in creamy dishes like clam chowder, potato and leek soup and fish pies.

Paprika is a spice made from air-dried fruits of the Capsicum annuum chilli. Although paprika is often associated with Hungarian cuisine, the chillies from which it is made are native to the Americas, and introduced to the Old World by the Spanish conquistadores. European use of paprika started in Iberia, and spread throughout Africa, Asia Minor, and ultimately the Balkans, all of which were under Ottoman rule. The plant that produces the Hungarian version of the spice was first grown in 1529 by the Turks at Buda (now part of the capital of Hungary, Budapest). In Spanish, paprika has been known as pimentón since the 1500s, and is an iconic ingredient of the cuisine of the western region of Extremadura. It is used to add color and flavor to many types of dishes; best-known of all probably Gulyas (Goulash to Anglo-Saxons). Its slightly sweet, warm flavor adds savor to tomato-based sauces, pastas, French-style salad dressing, and potato dishes. Its bright red color makes it an excellent garnish sprinkled on casseroles, vegetable pies, dips, and pâtés.

Paprika is found in most South African kitchens, regardless of culture. It is used in numerous Indian dishes, but it really comes into its own when applied to Spanish and Central European cuisine. It is a milder, sweeter alternative to red pepper and gives chilli con carne, chorizo, paella, goulash, pork ribs and Cracow sausages a real lift.     

Pepper (Piper nigrum) is a flowering vine cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning. When dried, the fruit is known as a peppercorn. Pepper corns, and the ground pepper derived from them, may be described simply as pepper, or more precisely as black pepper (cooked and dried unripe fruit), green pepper (dried unripe fruit) and white pepper (ripe, skinned seeds). Black pepper is native to South India, and is extensively cultivated there and all over the tropics. Dried ground pepper has been used since antiquity for both its flavour and as a traditional medicine. Black pepper is the world's most traded spice, and the second most commonly used seasoning after salt. It is one of the most common spices added to European cuisine and its descendants. The spiciness of black pepper is due to the chemical piperine, not to be confused with the capsaicin that gives fleshy peppers theirs. It is ubiquitous in the modern world as a seasoning and is usually paired with salt. It must be emphasised that it is preferable to buy whole black or white peppercorns, and grind them as needed, than to buy pre-ground pepper. The difference in aroma and flavor is appreciable.

Pepper is an omnipresent part of South African cuisine. It is a standard part of the seasoning process of everything from a soft-boiled egg to a sizzling rump steak, and features prominently on pizza, pasta and a host of fish and seafood dishes as well.

Poppy seed is an oil seed obtained from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). The tiny seeds have been harvested from dried seed pods by various civilisations for thousands of years. The seeds are used, whole or ground, as an ingredient in many foods, and they are pressed to yield poppy seed oil. The colour of poppy seeds is important in some uses. When used as a thickener in some dishes, white poppy seeds are preferred, having less impact on the color of the food. In other dishes, black poppy seeds are preferred, for maximum impact. Whole poppy seeds are widely used as a decoration in and on top of many baked goods. They are used in items such as muffins, bagels and cakes such as sponge cake. Like sesame seeds, poppy seeds are often added to hamburger buns. Their nutty flavour makes them an ideal seasoning for noodle dishes, cabbage dishes, casseroles, and dishes utilizing root vegetables such as parsnips.

Apart from its extensive use in South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine, poppy seed is mainly utilised as a bread and bun topping in South Africa.

Saffron (Crocus sativus), by far the most expensive of all spices, is derived from the dried, brilliant-yellow stigma of the autumn crocus. It lends its color to any food it touches; its flavor, on the other hand, is delicate. Saffron is primarily used in rice dishes, such as fruit-and-nut pilafs or the Spanish classics Arroz con Pollo, Arroz Valenciana and Paella de Mariscos. It is also used in some French and Middle Eastern cookery and sometimes, but less commonly, in Indian cuisine. A common, much cheaper, substitute for saffron is turmeric.

In South Africa, turmeric has usurped the role saffron previously played in European cuisine. Top restaurants do however use saffron in traditional Spanish rice dishes. Interestingly, South Africa has its own indigenous substitute for saffron, the “Stink Afrikaner” or Marigold (Tagetes erecta).

Sesame seeds. Sesame (Sesamum indicum) is a flowering plant widely distributed throughout tropical Africa and South Asia. It is one of the oldest oilseed crops known, domesticated well over 3000 years ago. Sesame is highly tolerant to drought-like conditions and grows where other crops may fail. It is now widely established in tropical regions around the world and is cultivated for its edible seeds, which grow in pods. Sesame seeds add a nutty taste and a delicate, almost invisible, crunch to many Asian dishes. Sesame seeds are highly valued for their high content of sesame oil, an oil that is very resistant to rancidity. Sesame oil is used as a cooking oil in some parts of the world, though different types perform differently during high-temperature frying. The "toasted" form of the oil (as distinguished from the "cold-pressed" form) has a distinctive pleasant aroma and taste, and is used as table condiment in some regions, especially in East Asia. Toasted sesame oil is also added to flavor soups and other hot dishes, usually just before serving, to avoid dissipating the volatile scents too rapidly.

Like poppy seeds, sesame seeds are mainly used as a bread roll topping in South Africa. The oil is used fairly extensively in Asian stir-fries and Wok dishes.

Star anise (Illicium verum) is the dried pericarp of the fruit of an evergreen tree indigenous to Northern Vietnam and Southern China. It contains anethole, the same substance that gives anise its distinctive aroma. It has long been a common ingredient in Oriental cuisine; featuring in Indian Biryani and Masala, Chinese Five Spice mix, Malay Ketjap, Thai Seven Spice and Vietnamese Phò soup. Because it is far cheaper and easier to produce, star anise is steadily usurping some of the roles traditionally played by “real” anise. These include flavouring confectionary, Galliano liqueur and Mulled Wine.

In South Africa, its main uses in contemporary cuisine include fruit tarts and pies, barbecue sauces and bastings, punches and Glühwein, chutneys, Biryani and Durban Curry.  

Tamarind. Sweet and tangy, tamarind is one of the widely used spice-condiments found in every South-Asian kitchen. It is used both as a spice and a souring agent. Tamarind tastes a bit like a date but is less sweet, and more acidic. It is a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. Tamarind or “Indian Date” (Tamarindus indica) is a very large tree with long, heavy drooping branches, and dense foliage. Completely grown-up tree might reach up to 80 feet in height. During each season, the tree bears curved fruit pods in abundance covering all over its branches. Each pod has hard outer shell encasing deep brown soft pulp enveloping around 2-10 hard dark-brown seeds.

In South Africa, tamarind has one main use: adding tartness to dishes that are inherently sweet. I use it in most curry dishes, and even in sweet-and-sour sosatie marinades.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is the product of a dried, ground, fleshy root which belongs to the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) which hails from Southern and South-Eastern Asia. It is prized for its brilliant yellow colour, much like saffron, although turmeric is not nearly as expensive. Apart from its numerous culinary uses, it is widely used in traditional Indian medicine or Siddha. Interestingly, its use as a colouring agent is not of primary importance in Indian cuisine but rather its “woodsy” flavor and scent. It is almost invariably one of the main components of curry mixes. Use it to brighten rice pilafs, curries, corn dishes, pickles, and relishes.

In South Africa, turmeric is mainly prized as a potent colouring agent, not just in Indian and Indo-Chinese cuisine, but even in dishes with European roots like Paella.

Vanilla  (Vanilla Planifolia) was used by the Aztecs to flavour their cacao-based drink xocoatl (chocolate). Montezuma, the Aztec emperor of Mexico, is said to have served it to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1520. Cortés then introduced cacao and vanilla beans to Europe. The vanilla bean is the fruit of an orchid. The vanilla orchid is one of only two orchids that produces something edible, the other being cardamom. Interestingly, fresh green vanilla beans have no taste or aroma. They must undergo an extensive curing process that results in the release of vanillin with its distinct aroma and flavour. Then they are left to mature for about three months in closed containers to develop their full aroma.

Vanilla is about much more than merely chocolate. It can be used to great effect in both sweet and savoury dishes; it flavours cake, custard, ice cream, crème bruleé, chicken with balsamic vinegar, vinaigrette, and kedgerees. Vanilla is marketed in three guises: dried pods (first prize), vanilla extract (cheaper and less PT) and vanilla essence (the ugly duckling).

I hope this  - admittedly abbreviated – piece has added to your knowledge of spices, and spurred you on to experiment with them!