History: Christopher Columbus sailed west from Spain on August 3, 1492. He sailed across the Atlantic seeking a route to the Indies, what are now India, China, the East Indies, and Japan. He sought direct access to gold, silk, precious gems, and the treasures of the Spice Islands: nutmeg, cloves, and mace. Just over two months later, on October 12, 1492, his ships landed in the West Indies, on an island in the Caribbean Sea. Mistakenly, Columbus thought he had landed in the East Indies, near Japan or China.
Perhaps Columbus realized over the course of his four voyages between 1492 and 1504 that he had not found the famed spice sources of the East. There were no trees yielding cloves, nutmeg, and mace. There was, however, a spice-producing tree native to the Caribbean Islands and Latin America grown exclusively in the Western Hemisphere. It was a tree whose fruit produced a spice with a scent and taste of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg combined. Ironically, Columbus and later Spanish explorers mistook it for a pepper tree and did not recognize its significance. It wasn’t until the early 1600’s that it was shipped to Europe to be used as a spice there.
In 1693, nearly 100 years after being introduced to Europe, a British botanist named it. What would you call a spice with the scent and taste of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg? “Allspice,” of course! Today, allspice continues to be produced primarily in the Western Hemisphere with Jamaica supplying over one-half of the world’s supply.
Plant Description: The allspice tree is a tropical evergreen which grows between 22 and 43 feet tall. It has light gray bark and dark green leaves. Small whitish flowers grow on the allspice tree in the summer. These flowers produce a small fruit (called berries) which resemble small peas or large brown peppercorns. The berries are picked while still green and dried in the sun. They are then sold as whole dried spice or ground into powder.
Because of its high eugenol content (60-75%), allspice shares the attributes of cloves. It is a carminative and aids digestion. Its oil is mildly antiseptic and anaesthetic. In addition, Michael Tierra, a respected herbalist, has recommended adding allspice or cloves to any herb formula in need of a stimulant.
Culinary Uses: Allspice remains popular in European cookery flavoring pies, cakes, cookies, sweet breads, stews, fish marinades, fruit salads, and beverages. A mulled cider is a particular favorite during a holiday season.
2 quarts apple cider
1 stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon whole allspice
1/2 unpeeled lemon, thinly sliced
Combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan and simmer ten minutes. Strain and serve hot.
As one would expect, allspice is a prized ingredient in Jamaica where the leaves of the allspice tree are used for flavoring in addition to the whole and ground berries. Adding one allspice leaf while cooking applesauce or a pot of beef stew will yield a touch of exotic flavoring. Allspice leaves may also be steeped for a fragrant tea.
What may come as a surprise is the use of allspice in north Indian cooking, such as in curries. Because of its popularity in north India, allspice is cultivated in Kashmir and other parts of India. It is not used in south Indian cooking.