Spices: 6 posts

Tonka Bean, Chocolate Salt and Three Perfumes

Several years ago, a friend gave me a jar of chocolate and tonka salt from a Viennese outfit called Zum Schwarzen Kameel. It’s a delicatessen and a culinary complex famous for its unique interpretation of classical Austrian specialties. The salt was a mix of coarse salt crystals, black pepper, pieces of cacao beans and tonka. Only a small quantity of the latter was present, but its cherry-almond scent made the salt a heady, fragrant mixture. I’ve used it on grilled meat and fish, but it shone best on winter vegetables like cabbage, turnips, swedes, potatoes, and parsnips. I’ve since made my own version, using equal amounts of black pepper and cacao beans and a smidgen of tonka shavings for perfume. The recipe is at the end of the article.

The reason I was stingy with tonka bean in my blend is because it’s a potent ingredient.  The scent of toasted almonds, amarena cherries, sun-warmed hay and vanilla custard lingers well, and tonka bean’s is one of the most luscious and seductive aromas in a perfumer’s palette. It was also responsible for a revolution in modern perfumery.

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Easter Eggs Colored With Onion Skins

I see the Easter color palette as yellow, violet, green, and sienna. Yellow is from the saffron tinted paska, a vanilla scented brioche we traditionally make for Easter Sunday. Violet is from the candied flowers we use to decorate it. Green is from the dill and cucumber salad that must accompany the roast pork. Sienna, on the other hand, is from the color of Easter eggs. It’s a rich hue, between the reds of Sienna frescoes and the brown of sandalwood. This color is completely natural and making it is very easy. All you need is a few handfuls of onion skins.

My grandmother starts collecting onion skins a few months before Easter, but she colors dozens of eggs. Most of us need no more than a few onions, although the more skins you have, the darker the color will be. It also follows that the darker the onion skins, the more intense the shade of sienna.

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Perfume With the Aroma of Gingerbread

For anyone interested in perfumery, blending a gingerbread spice mixture can be a useful exercise. You can learn to create top, heart and base notes and to understand how spices interplay to create an aroma greater than the simple sum of their parts. Most European countries have their own gingerbread recipe and a combination of spices that gives each regional variation its distinctive flavor. My great-grandmother’s Ukrainian version was scented with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, star anise and a hint of saffron. When I blended it myself following her proportions, I realized that it was similar to the “gingerbread perfume” accord I learnt how to make as a perfumery student, although my liquid version didn’t have the voluptuous richness of saffron.

In FT magazine column Mouthwatering Scents of Gingerbread, I write about spices, pastries and perfumes, including my four favorite fragrances with a gingerbread accord. To read the full article, please click here.

More on gingerbread: Ukrainian Honeycakes with Cinnamon :: Gingerbread Spice Blends :: Belgian Gingerbread (Speculoos) :: Dutch Cinnamon Cookies (Jan Hagel).

I’d love your opinion on other gingerbread redolent perfumes. Also, if anyone has a favorite recipe for the dark, moist, soft gingerbread or honeycake, I’d be most grateful.  

Photography by Bois de Jasmin, to make the printed gingerbread, I used the dough recipe for speculoos.

Yellow Marigolds and Blue Fenugreek : Georgian Spices

I didn’t know that tagetes were edible until I went to Georgia. My grandmother cultivated several varieties for her flower beds, and I loved the spicy, green scent of the flowers we affectionately called chornobryvtsi, the black-eyebrowed ones, since dark eyebrows are one of the hallmarks of classical Ukrainian beauty.  On the other hand, I never knew that they have an equally alluring flavor and that it forms the main accord of Georgian cuisine.

Several varieties of tagetes are edible, but the most common one is tagetes patula. That’s the same flower woven into Indian garlands to decorate gods and honored guests, but only in Georgia is it used as food. The flavor of tagetes is earthy, spicy, with a hint of green apple and orange. It plays a base note in the finished dish, lending a lingering brightness to chakhokhbili, chicken stew with tomato and herbs, spice blends, chili pastes, or walnut sauces.

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Coriander and Cumin or The CC Powder

Being married into an Indian family, I learned a few things: Time is a flexible, fluid entity; when you have a few millennia of history underpinning your culture, what’s an hour here or there. You can always eat–and if you can’t, you’re probably not conscious. Spices to a cook are like essences to a perfumer. On this latter point, I would like to linger.

cc powder

I thought I knew spices before I went to India, but nothing prepared me for the dazzling array of flavors and the variety of techniques with which they can be brought to life. India is divided into 29 states, and each region has its spice signature; generalizing is all but impossible. For instance, Aai’s, my mother-in-law’s cooking combines the refined sweetness beloved in her native Gujarat with the robust spiciness of Maharashtra fare. These two states share a long border, but the cuisines are remarkably different. Gujarati cooking is rich in coriander, tamarind, with peanuts and sesame giving it a nutty flavor, while Marathi dishes have a sharp bite of garlic, chili pepper and mustard seeds. Cross into northern India, and the richness of cinnamon, clove and fenugreek color the local meals. Travel down the southern coast, and coconut becomes the main leitmotif.

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