As our northern hemisphere moves away from the sun, shortening days and cooling temperatures turn our thoughts to ways of retaining heat both in our bodies and our environment. Whereas in spring and summer we long for the vibrant, refreshing taste of green herbs, autumn flavours come from the spice cupboard.
In ancient times, to trade in spices meant control of great wealth. Despite our seeming isolation from the hot countries of the middle and far east, our British ancestors have always loved cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.
Scholars may claim the Crusaders brought spices back with them for general use, but archaeologists have found evidence for Phoenician traders plying their wares around the majority of the British coastline during Roman times and probably before that.
Every housewife with means kept her spices under lock and key, bringing them out to flavour festive dishes often during the dark times of the year. Sometimes their use would be to make rancid meat more palatable and safe to eat, whilst richer folk would dazzle their guests with saffron and beaten gold leaf.
Much of British medical knowledge in the middle ages was based on the works of Middle Eastern physicians such as Avicenna as well as classical Greek and Egyptian texts. Their use of spices to warm the blood and keep it moving around the body was well known and ginger syrup retained its place in the British Pharmacia for arthritic pain until the 1950s.
All spices have warming qualities to a greater or lesser degree. Nutmeg is a warming, stimulating spice. It is a traditional digestive remedy and generally stimulates energy in the body. It can be used with other warming spices for people who tend to be on the cold side, constitutionally. It makes a useful poultice for chest congestion.
Large doses (i.e. more than two whole nutmegs eaten at once) are hallucinogenic causing massive hangovers and inability to urinate. They are a favourite high with prisoners who cannot obtain other illegal drugs but they are often unaware of the side effects!
Cardomom and cinnamon have a gentle effect, if you are trying to persuade someone to help their circulation whilst professing to hate spices. They can easily be added to family staples such as rice pudding or apple pie without anyone protesting. Cardamom has been widely used to treat infections in teeth and gums, to prevent and treat throat problems, congestion of the lungs and tuberculosis, inflammation of eyelids and digestive disorders.
Cinnamon has a myriad of uses, from treating Raynauld’s disease to type two diabetes. Every herbalist will wax lyrical about cinnamon if you listen to them long enough. Jim Macdonald has written, “Cinnamon excels as a stimulating diaphoretic, and is specific for when there is poor peripheral circulation but the afflicted is either sweating profusely or has diarrhoea and is becoming dehydrated.”
He describes this as an example of a diaphoretic that checks perspiration, rather than promoting it. He says this action isn’t inhibitory; rather, it helps to prevent dehydration resultant from weakness in the periphery. He believes diaphoretics don’t, as is often stated, work by stimulating sweating but rather by controlling ventilation via directing circulation and regulating/correcting tension or weakness in the periphery.
King described cinnamon, “For post-partum and other uterine haemorrhages, it is one of the most prompt and efficient remedies in the Materia Medica.” Ellingwood was another nineteen century herbalist who used cinnamon as “a haemostatic of much power” saying, “it is positively reliable in all passive haemorrhages.”
Cumin and coriander are both anti-bacterial, warming and cooling, thanks to their diaphoretic properties. Other spices such as turmeric and chilli are increasingly being used for their anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving qualities.
Turmeric is an ancient Ayevedic medicine. It is a useful digestive stimulant and chologouge. It gently warms the digestive system and through slight bitter and pungent flavours, it increases secretion of digestive fluids. Turmeric also stimulates the production and secretion of bile, which is extremely important in the digestion of fats. Difficulty digesting fats can be resolved by stirring a little turmeric into food, or taking as a warm tea before or after meals.
The classical method of taking turmeric is to dry fry the powder, then add to a cup of warm milk sweetened with honey. A teaspoon stirred into warm water with a spoon of honey is a pleasant digestive stimulating tea or eat a small portion of rice cooked with turmeric, or add to your soup broth. The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric for treating psoriasis led to one mother hiding turmeric in scrambled egg for her seven year old.
Never add more than 1tsp of turmeric to any dish or it will ruin the flavour. If you need to take larger amounts at any one time, the dose is usually ingested as capsules of powder or tinctured root.
It’s difficult to talk about spices without giving recipes. Here is my favourite warming winter tea
Warming winter tea
Place 1-2tsp flax seed together with a broken up cinnamon stick and maybe a couple of cardamom pods and some sliced orange peel, a handful of fresh or half a handful of dried rosehips and the juice of half an orange. Put all the ingredients in a small saucepan and fill the saucepan with cold water. Bring to the boil, then simmer uncovered until the amount of water has halved from evaporation. Strain, add honey to taste and sip while hot.
Nettle latte is another winter favourite.
Make a strong infusion of nettles. Heat a portion of milk and whisk until frothy. Mix hot milk and hot nettle tea in equal quantities. Add honey and powdered cinnamon or nutmeg to taste.
1 l (2 pints) water
40 g (1 1/2 oz) dried herb or 100g (4oz) fresh chopped ginger root
450 g (1 lb) sugar
Put the chopped ginger root in water, bring to a boil, simmer for 20-30 minutes, strain.
Clean out the saucepan, pour liquid back into it, evaporate on minimum heat until you only have 2 dl (7 fl.oz.) left. Add sugar, simmer until sugar has dissolved, pour into jars, label.
Sweet Potato Curry
3 medium size sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into approx. 1” segments
2 carrots peeled and sliced
2 celery sticks washed and thinly sliced
1 onion peeled and diced
1 red pepper, diced
1” root ginger peeled and diced
3 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled and left for 15 mins before cooking
3 courgettes washed and sliced (optional)
1 apple, peeled, cored and sliced
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin
10 whole green cardamom pods
Any other veg you have lying around which needs using up, cut into suitable small pieces
Sweat the onions, red pepper, garlic and ginger in olive oil. Add the spices and cook for 2 minutes. Add courgettes at this point if you are using them and fry until soft. Add the other ingredients and fry for a few moments then just cover with cold water. Season. Cover the saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes until all the vegetables are sufficiently soft for your taste. Serve with rice of your choice.
Mung bean and pumpkin curry
1/2 a bag of mung beans soaked overnight
Half the insides of a large pumpkin
1 tin of coconut milk
One handful of sultanas
1 red pepper, diced
2 carrots peeled and sliced
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 apple, peeled, cored and sliced
2 cloves of garlic
1” root ginger
1 tsp cumin,1 tsp coriander seeds, 1 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp paprika
Peel the garlic and mash with the ginger to form a paste. Sweat the onion and red pepper for five minutes in olive oil. Add the ginger/garlic paste and spices. Cook for 2 mins. Add the carrots, mung beans and pumpkin and fry for 1 min. Add the coconut milk plus another tinful of cold water. Cook for 20 minutes then add sultanas and apple. Cook for another 20-30 minutes until everything is soft. Serve with rice of your choice.
Spiced rice pudding
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. pudding rice
½ tsp. nutmeg grated
8 green cardamoms
Small handful sultanas or raisins (optional)
Place all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Transfer to a secure, lidded boiling basin and place inside a slow cooker. Fill the slow cooker with boiling water up to the level of the liquid inside the basin. Cook for about 3-5 hours until soft.