Spice, Spice, Baby
Before we do a little dive into seasonings, first we should differentiate between spices and herbs. Spices are primarily the bark, seeds, fruit or root of plants; herbs are the leaves, flowers or stems, and they can be used dried or fresh. This may sound kind of, well, dry, but consider how much they transform our food and even our memories.
Spices as Memories
Think of the spices you associate with baking: You may think of allspice, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. You might think back to when you were a child standing on a stool and stirring a big bowl of batter, folding in chocolate chips. Or think of a Thanksgiving meal: You may think of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, like the song goes. Close your eyes and think of the first few times you ate a type of cuisine that was very different from the food you grew up eating. Maybe it was the intoxicating array of spices that make curry powder at an Indian restaurant. Or perhaps it was the first time you had real Mexican food: Cumin, chili powder, oregano, cilantro, lime and maybe even cocoa were part of that flavor explosion. It could be as simple as the combination of dill, salt, pepper and lemon that evokes the taste of summer and makes you think of your mother’s potato salad. Or the first time you had an amazing marinara: You might think of garlic, onion, basil, oregano, thyme, or, more likely, just recollect a complex, integrated sensory memory that transports you. That is what good spice combinations do. They combine together seamlessly and elegantly to transform what you are eating and they may even conjure up (or create) warm memories.
The history of the spice trade is long and deep, complex and rich. Aromatic spices like anise seed, cinnamon and cardamom were among the most valuable products of early trade. Asian and Arab middlemen carried the coveted goods over land but access to spices and increased use only happened when new maritime routes were forged by sea, establishing flourishing trading points, like that in Ceylon, or modern day Sri Lanka, and Alexandria, Egypt. Tariffs and prices for spices became so exorbitant to Europeans that it was unaffordable to even the aristocracy. But by the 15th century, aided by newly improved navigational equipment, middlemen (spice dealers) could be cut out as kings and queens sent out their own gatherers but many spices remained rare and unaffordable. Today, what the average person has in their pantry would be considered a veritable treasure trove to royalty in the humblest of kitchen cabinets.
The Spice Trade in Your Kitchen
Cuisines all over the world use distinct, often regional and even familial flavor combinations in their seasonings. Toasting, grinding and crushing are all ways to extract the most flavor from spices, and many families have their own specific blends, like berbere and garam masala, that are passed down from one generation to the next. Flavor characteristics like fruity (coriander), cooling (spearmint), earthy (turmeric), piney (rosemary), spicy (ginger) and floral (lavender) are just some of what we consider when we create our unique, full-bodied blends. At Watson’s Seasoning Blends, we build on the tradition of layered, complex, integrated flavors that assist and elevate, never overwhelm. We are always learning more about spices and discovering new ways to bring the Silk Road to your own kitchen.
We are proud to be a modern part of the rich history of spices.