Monday, 4 January 2010

Something old, someting new....

This post is a late entry in the Herbwifery Forum January blog party on Warming herbs hosted by Yael.

In June this year, my sister in law, Roz and her partner, Dickie, will be holding a medieval feast at Dunster Castle for their wedding breakfast. They are both keen archers (Roz has been the UK Ladies Longbow Champion in the past) so a medieval celebration seems a perfect culmination of the happy event.

They have borrowed a copy of my ‘Cooking and Dining in Medieval England by Peter Brears’, which was recommended by Anthony Lyman-Dixon as the most comprehensive book of its kind. Although I’ve had it over six months, I’ve only managed to read the first few chapters, but already it has completely changed my view of medieval castle ruins!

You might think this happy family event has nothing to do with a post on warming herbs, but if you can be patient a little longer, I will explain.

During the November meeting of the Mercian Herb Group, Debs delivered a fascinating presentation on spices. It is easy to forget that spices are also herbs and most of them are warming in one way or another. Amongst the spices Debs introduced us to was Grains of Paradise, Aframomum melegueta. This spice was very popular during medieval times and is an absolute “must have” if you are trying to re-create medieval recipes.

Debs very kindly shared some of her Grains of Paradise with us. They look like peppercorns, which they can substitute for, but have a reddish tinge. The seeds are harvested from a green leafy plant very similar to ginger grown in West Africa. It has a distinctive purple, trumpet-shaped flower. The pods are red when first picked, then are dried to a brown wrinkled capsule. The seeds come from inside the pod and produce a grey-coloured powder when ground.

Grains of Paradise have been described as tasting somewhat like coriander, ginger, and cardamom, with a citrus note and a scent which people sometimes describe as being very “floral.” It is milder than black pepper, but it still provides a degree of heat and spice if applied in large amounts.

The name, ‘Grains of Paradise’, was applied by the ancient spice traders, who justified their high prices by telling buyers it came from the Garden of Eden itself and had to be collected as they floated down the rivers out of paradise. The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, knew the spice as “African Pepper”, but the more exotic name was popular throughout Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth century.

Like all spices, Grains of Paradise has its own medicinal properties. In medieval times, under the Doctrine of Humours, it was considered to be “hot and moist”. Like black pepper, it can be used as an anti-inflammatory and a pain-killer by warming arthritic joints. Modern research carried out on rats has claimed it as an aphrodisiac, but one would have to carry out personal experimentation to see if such findings held true for humans as well!

Over the past few days, I have been experimenting with electuaries thanks to the recipes kindly shared by Susan Hess and Ananda Wilson during the August 2009 blog party on Sweet Medicines. I substituted Grains of paradise for red pepper flakes in the Spiced electuary and added some with powdered ginger to the Longevity electuary.

Spiced Electuary (Susan Hess)
1/2 tsp Grains of Paradise,
1 tsp whole cloves,
2 tsp coriander seeds,
2 tsp dried ginger root,
2 tsp whole black peppercorns,
2 tsp fennel seeds,
2 tsp nutmeg powder,
3 tsp cardamom seeds,
3 tsp whole allspice berries,
3 whole star anise,
3 tblsps cinnamon chips
Grind all spices together in a mortar and pestle (or electric coffee grinder if you have one) until quite finely powdered. Stir into 2 cups of honey and simmer together over a the lowest heat possible double boiler for at least a day, preferably longer, but stirring often. Strain warm honey through a medium fine sieve. This will assure that you remove all the tooth-breaking hard parts, but still allow the powered bits to pass through. The finished electuary should be rich, dark and nearly paste-like in consistency. Store in a clean jar and cap tightly.

I made the electuary in a crockpot, which was a big mistake. Even on the lowest setting, the temperature was too high. After two hours, Chris suggested we strain it before it cooled and stuck like concrete to the bowl! We strained it onto a baking tray and put it in the utility to cool. It set into a dark brown toffee which bent and pulled when handled, but which broke when hit with a heavy object (Chris used the wooden spurtle made by my father to stir porridge!).

In small pieces, it is not unpleasant to suck, but is definitely spicy!

Longevity Electuary (Ananda Wilson)
In an 8 oz jar, add:
3 tsp Ashwagandha and or Shatawari powder
3 tsp Spirulina powder
3 tsp Slippery Elm or Mallow powder
2 tsp Siberian Ginseng (Eluthero) powder
1 tsp Cardamom powder
1/2 tsp Turmeric powder
Cover almost full with good local, raw honey
Add 1 tsp of Rose hydrosol or Rose elixir. Dried Elderberry powder is optional as well! Slowly, to avoid the infamous "cloud poof", stir with a spoon until all the powders are smoothed into the honey. Label and store. Refrigeration isn't necessary.

Ananda suggested adding ginger or pepper to the electuary if you have a “kapha” constitution, which I probably have, so I powdered half a teaspoon of Grains of Paradise and added it together with half a teaspoon of dried ginger. The resulting honey is “very different”! The spirulina turned it bright green and the spices have given it a very interesting flavour. So far I’ve eaten it on bread as this seems more palatable to me than having it on its own.

What I love about Grains of Paradise is that it has given me a link to the past which can now carry on to the future. Although it fell out of favour in the kitchen during Georgian times when an Act of Parliament prevented its use as a flavouring in beer, aqua vita and cordials, perhaps now is the time to reassess its distinctive properties and make it part of our lives again.


Rosalee said...

What an original post! Thanks for posting!

Comfrey Cottages said...

i love learning about new things sarah and the seeds of paradise are new to me! sounds like they taste wonderful and love all the wonderful medicinal aspects. would definetely like to try it as an oil infusion for an arthritis salve for my daughter:)love love love electuaries and as i keep bees, a natural step i take alot when working with a new herb:) this would be perfect:)
i will keep an eye out for this spice and maybe get a chance to try it someday. it would be a special treat:) thank you for the time and effort it took to put together this lovely article

Sarah Head said...

Hi CC I'm so glad you enjoyed the article. I have emailed you.

Karen Vaughan said...

What a fascinating post. I just discovered grains of paradise myself, although I use several of the other amomi spices. You have inspired me to try using them in new ways.

Amber Pixie Shehan said...

This is wonderful! I make herbed honey and electuary regularly, and these sound absolutely amazing.

Grains of Paradise are my favorite peppercorn...spicy but not fiery.