Natural Life Magazine

The Herb Garden
The joy of growing and using herbs

Christmas Herbs
by Rachel McLeod

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 Latin America.

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.

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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 Christmas”.

Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in 1974.


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