Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Touch of Spice… and Herb

- ένα κείμενο που έχει εκδοθεί στα αγγλικά - I love walking. It's actually my favorite exercise of the body and mind- trains the body and the eyes. You can observe things that you might have never been interested in or you would never watch when you're locked in a four wheel vehicle and forced to drive in the traffic. Walking enhances a person's sensitivity, observation and clears mind (I think!). Strolling through the old neighborhoods of Athens, just under Acropolis in Plaka, was my favorite pastime when I was living downtown. It was just fascinating to watch all these tiny stores with souvenirs, hats, clothes, leather sandals, paintings, rugs, antiques, stores of all different styles, in almost two-three roads. One day, by accident, I went in the wrong direction and saw an old fashioned shop which reminded me a 50's movie type of store. Curious as I am by nature, I entered. What a joy for the eyes, the sense and the soul was that… All the precious stones of the crown were there: Precious spices with bright colors, from all over the world, each giving a unique melting aroma of the old place. Cinnamon and nutmeg are my favorite spices. Instinctively, I was directed towards them. The owner, aged and old-fashioned, as was his store, was kind enough to welcome me in and to give me an unusual and incredible lesson of the spice's history… I cherish it and I keep this unique lesson in my heart till today with a smile on my face. I would call this discussion, as a kind of 'initiation' to the world of spices and herbs. I asked him "what is a spice and what is an herb? And what is their difference?" He smiled and replied: "Is so easy to discriminate that: Herbs are the fragrant leaves of plants that do not have woody stems, such as thyme, oregano, peppermint etc. Most often the plants are of the temperate climate zone. Also, you can see that herbs are more fragrant when fresh, whereas spices often are stronger as dried powders. While spices are the barks, berries, fruits, roots and stems of all kinds of plants. Most often these are of tropical origin, such as cloves, nutmeg and pepper. Curry for example, is a mixture of spices. Most spices are grown in the tropical regions of the world, with some thriving in the cool misty highlands. Many of the seed spices come from more temperate areas, such as coriander seed, which is grown in Northern India, Africa, South Eastern Europe and the wheat producing areas of South Australia and Western New South Wales. You see that in the tropical countries people use stronger tastes! Why? Because, spices, besides wonderful taste, have strong antibacterial qualities, the food can be better preserved and in these countries people needed these qualities. Also, can you imagine? The spices we can find so easily today, created many wars and were considered, as expensive as gold in the past." I was fascinated and wanted to ask him more. "Is there a way we can separate spices?" "Spices can be grouped into five basic categories. These are; sweet, pungent, tangy, hot, and amalgamating. The way we use these and the amounts we put into cooking have these characteristics. Examples of the different types of spices are: Sweet: cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, vanilla Pungent: cloves, star anise, cardamom Tangy: ginger, tamarind, sumac, kokam Hot: pepper, chilli, mustard, horseradish Amalgamating: coriander seed, fennel seed Of course, there is always salt amongst spices (even though salt is not a spice, it is still categorized by some people as such). "And how we can categorize herbs, another love of mine?" I asked him. "Most of the herbs (such as thyme, sage, marjoram, oregano, bay leaves, mint and rosemary) are referred to as savoury. The herbs do have varying degrees of flavour intensity, however not as dramatic and intense, as with spices. Spices are another story…" He said and smiled. I realized that I was 'stealing' his time. In fact I was almost one hour with him… I needed to leave, but I was fascinated, I wanted to know more about spices and herbs. So, I continued my questions. "How I preserve spices and how I can use them in the food safely, i.e., without destroying my food?" "Spices must be packaged in good quality materials. This applies to all spices whether whole or ground, however the quality of the package is most critical for ground spices as the grinding process has begun the release of flavour - that is why ground spices are often more convenient to use. Never buy your spices and herbs in plastic bags, cellophane packs or cardboard canisters. These packages all allow the volatile oils and thus the flavour to escape. For longer existence of the spices, I would suggest glass vase, very well sealed and place them in dark places without any humidity." I took a few precious grams of cinnamon from Sri Lanka, pepper from India (in fact Columbus made his trip to America because of this spice!), nutmeg from the 'Spice Islands'/Maluku Islands, precious crocus from Kozani (one of the most rare saffron quality), mastic from Chios island and freshly harvested oregano and chamomile from the mountains of Sparta and gave him the money. He liked me and offered me one final piece of advice. "When you cook or prepare a sweet, use spices and herbs with enjoyment and love. Give them your good, positive energy. If you don't know how much, just follow the recipe! If you want to experiment, taste the food you create! That way you will avoid any 'strange' overdose!" I promised to Mr. Andreas, with his white hair and moustache, I would return. I wanted to continue my journey with spices and herbs and question where to use what…so I took my precious stones and started my return back home much richer…naturally…

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