I have been rereading Elizabeth David's eccentric little tome 'Spices Salt and Aromatics in the English kitchen'. It is a short book, which reviews spices in the English kitchen, their use for preserves and pickles, the Indian influence in England and includes lots of recipes for things like pickled onions and a 1950s style curry.
She quotes Sir Henry Luke from the Tenth Muse (1954):
'To turn to spices, mace - that aesthetically beautiful by-product of the nutmeg tree, a network husk of deep and brilliant lacquer red while it is still fresh on the nut - enriches thick soups and the stockpot generally with its singularly piquant aroma. Nutmeg itself, grated, is also a help in soups no less than in a bread sauce and a rum punch. Saffron is as indispensible to a good Milanese risotto as it is to a bouillabaisse and a paella. A touch of cardamom or coriander seed transforms a humdrum stew with the aroma of a Middle Eastern souk.
And what a rich evocative aroma they have, those ancient vaulted bazaars of Aleppo and Damascus and the Old City of Jerusalem, of Qazvin and Meshhed and Isfahan, as you approach the streets of the vendors of spices. Here you inhale an amalgam of all the aboriginal savours and smells of the Orient: the pepper and cloves; the cinnamon and turmeric and coriander.'
I cannot wander an Arabian souk today, and this is the closest I have ever been to a Middle Eastern Spice market:
(Market, Singaraja, Northern Bali, 2005)
Isn't it incredible how the scent of spice can evoke a long dormant memory. For me, cloves take me back to when I was 10 and we made pomanders for Christmas by sticking cloves into an orange. Cinnamon reminds me of the cinnamon and sugar mixture I ate sprinkled on buttery toast when I was a teenager. And the mixture of pepper, nutmeg, blachan, galangal and turmeric brings back many meals from Bali.
I may have written about the pointlessness of muffins. Well here is a wonderful Nigella Lawson muffin recipe which has some spices, and last for a few days in a sealed container. Your kitchen will be filled with a spicy Christmassy ginger glow.
250 g plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp ground ginder
1 tsp ground clinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
50 g dark muscovado sugar
50 g light muscovado suger
150 ml milk
1/4 tsp balsamic vinegear
6 tbsp vegetable or corn oil
4 tbsp golden syrup
4 tbsp black treacle
Preheat oven to 200 degrees celsius. Line a 12 bun muffin tin with muffin liners.
Combine the flour, bicarb of sada, baking powder and spices in a large bowl. Whisk the egg in a large measuring jug then add the sugards, breaking up any lumps. Add the milk and vinegar then measure in the oil with a trablespooon. Use the same oily spoon to add the syrup and treacle so they don't stick to it. Whisk the mixture to combine and add to the flour and spices.
Stir until mixed but still fairly lumpy - the mixutre may be quite runny but this is okay.
Spoon or pour the mixture ino the muffin papers and bake for 20 mins until the tops are browned - the muffins will still be squashy when you take them out to cool on a rack. Note you will not get the hump topped look of other muffins. This is a good thing.
And if you want to learn more of spice history, go no further than Giles Milton's Nathaniel's Nutmeg in which (amongst other things) the farsighted English, following a little spat wih the Netherlands, traded the tiny island of Run (part of the Banda Island chain in southeast Asia) with a rather larger rocky island off the coast of north America called Manhattan.
The transation was considered to be fair largely because Run had scores of nutmeg trees, and Manhattan had none.
(Images: (1)(5) Taschen (3) Flickr (4) Jane (5) Point Click Home)