Caraway, cloves, cinnamon and coriander. What marvelous
aromas these names evoke, especially at Christmas time when they are used so
frequently in festive cooking.
These ingredients raise the question of the difference
between herbs and spices. Both categories fulfill the definition of a herb –
that is, a plant that is useful to people. Within that definition I find it
useful to describe as herbs plants which grow in temperate climates and are
usually green and leafy with aromatic scent, characteristic flavors, and are
used for cooking and/or medicinal purposes.
Meanwhile, spices are tropical plants, different parts of
which are dried and used both to flavor food and for medicine. Spices are
usually stronger in flavor than herbs and used in smaller amounts. Both herbs
and spices are used in herbal crafts, especially for gifts. Not only bottles of
dried herbs, oil and vinegar, but wreaths, pomander balls, Christmas tree
ornaments and jewelry made from herbs and spices are welcome gifts.
Caraway (Carum carvi) is a biennial herb belonging to the
Umbelliferae family, a cousin of dill, fennel, chervil and parsley. The dried
seeds are the part of the plant that are used; perhaps the most well know use is
in seed cake, which was very popular in Victorian times and though loved by some
is detested by others. However, in addition, it gives its distinctive flavor to
breads, is good with beetroot or cabbage and is the base for a liqueur called
Kummel. Medicinally, caraway is an excellent tonic for the digestive system;
half a teaspoonful of seeds can be chewed before meals.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is another cousin to caraway
but is a much more interesting plant. It is one of the few herbs which is both a
leafy herb and a dried spice. The fresh leaves have a strange and to me rather
unpleasant smell. However, this does not affect the flavor, which is delicious
and used extensively in dishes from eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, the Far East and
The dried seeds are a widely used spice and one of the main
ingredients of any curry dish. It is easy to grow coriander in parts of this
continent where the summers are long enough to allow the seeds to ripen. The
seeds have a delicious, aromatic flavor, far removed from that of the fresh
leaves. The seeds are easily crunched in a mortar and pestle and it is fun to
use your own home grown coriander! In addition to being a basic spice in curry
mixes, ground coriander is used in large quantities for festive breads and
gingerbread. One of my favorite recipes is carrot and coriander soup.
Carrot Coriander Soup
2 medium onions
1 clove garlic
2 oz butter
1 lb carrots
1 cup chicken [or vegetable] stock
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 to 1 Tbsp coriander seed
3 oz dry sherry
1 cup milk
Sauté finely chopped onions and crushed garlic in the butter
until they are golden brown. Add thinly sliced carrots, seasonings and the
sherry. Cover the pan and simmer slowly for 30 minutes. Add the stock and
continue simmering for another 30 minutes. Puree in the food processor, then add
milk. Heat before serving and garnish with parsley and croutons. I make two or
three times this amount and freeze it for later use, leaving out the milk until
I am ready to reheat it.
We cannot grow either cloves (Eugenia aromatica) or cinnamon
(Cinnamonum zelyanicum) in North America. They
come from tropical countries, originally from the Spice Islands in the Far East
and now from Madagascar
and the West Indies.
Neither the leafy parts of the plant nor the seeds are used.
Surprisingly, cloves are the flowers of a small tree. The tree is a tropical
evergreen and has clusters of crimson flowers. These are hardly ever seen, as
the buds are picked before they open. The characteristic clove aroma and flavor
comes from a very strong essential oil. It is very easy to over-use cloves, but
used judiciously they will impart a subtle flavor to meat dishes, sauces,
pickles, soups and apple dishes.
Medicinally, cloves are stimulating and will help
circulation. Oil of cloves gives relief for toothache; whole cloves can be
chewed for this purpose and will have a slightly numbing effect. At this time of
the year, one of the most important uses for cloves is to make pomander balls by
sticking whole cloves into fresh oranges and leaving them to dry; when decorated
with a ribbon these make lovely, aromatic gifts.
Cinnamon is one of our most used spices. Where would we be
without cinnamon buns, cinnamon in apple pie and a cinnamon stick in mulled wine
or the fruit punch at Christmas? These sticks are actually thin strips of bark,
which curl as they dry after being stripped from either cinnamon or cassia
trees. When dry, they are very hard and the powdered cinnamon has to be prepared
commercially as it is ground very finely. Medicinally, cinnamon is used often in
a tea to warm the body, particularly for colds or flu.
There is nothing to beat cinnamon for Christmas decorations.
The sticks can be incorporated into wreaths, made into decorated “logs” for a
table centerpiece, into tree decorations or used as scent in a winter potpourri.
The possibilities are endless and all with the evocative aroma that says “Merry
Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in 1974.