Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Spices and life... now and then

Photography and retouching by Graeme / Styling by me!

I've had a thing for spices for as long as I can remember. As a child playing in the sea, my favourite game was to pretend to stir a big stockpot in the water, adding a pinch of this and a pinch of that. One of my earliest memories was the za'atar flatbread I ate in Kuwait where we once lived. I had no idea at the time it was called za'atar, nor did I realise it was a mixture of thyme, sesame and sumac. In fact, it was years before I even came across sumac with its brick-red hue and tart fruity flavour. I've had sumac in my spice cupboard ever since for sprinkling over warmed pitta bread.

When we moved to Egypt, food took on a different quality. The food sang with cumin, coriander, allspice and cinnamon. Cumin is still the spice I use the most. A couple of pinches always go into my houmous, and roasted cauliflower (Luca's favourite) is sensational with a dusting of ground cumin before it goes into the oven.

Paprika reminds me of mum's Hungarian goulash and nutmeg saw its way into countless spinach tarts when we were kids.

In my early twenties at home in London, I started experimenting: tamarind in curries, juniper in Scandinavian-cured salmon, cardamom and vanilla in baked fruit. I loved casting my eye over my spices and picking one or two for dinner. I took care with storing and labelling them and I know I had three times as many spices as I do now!

So I was delighted when, years later as a food writer, I was commissioned to write a piece on The Spice Shop in London's Notting Hill. I travelled the world in Birgit Erath's tiny little shop and soaked up every bit of her passion and knowledge.

I was mesmerised that day. Determined to be the best and sell the very best, she went to extraordinary lengths to make this happen. I listened to her recall trips to spice growers around the world, how she got tanked up on a bottle of rum with a cook on Boston Beach in Jamaica just so she could lay her hands on his jerk seasoning recipe and I wholeheartedly agreed with her philosophy that you only truly learn about a country's food once you show an interest in the people and their culture.

Here are some of my notes from that day in 2006:

Massage ras-el-hanout, a heady Moroccan blend, into chicken, lamb chops and other steaks, then cook as you would normally. Or mix with oil first for a quick marinade.

Serve the Egyptian dukka mix as a pre-dinner nibble: dip warm flatbread into good olive oil then into the dukka. A blend of hazelnuts, sesame seeds and coriander, it also transforms scrambled eggs and cheese on toast.

Remember to get a good balance of bitter (cumin, black onions seeds and turmeric), sweet (paprika, cinnamon, star anise, vanilla) and sour (sumac, tamarind, balsamic vinegar).

No need to feel envy when your hear of friends' Moroccan tales laced with glittering spices; the spice merchants there mostly rely on mass-produced Indian imports. Sure, they were once great spice traders in Morocco, but they don’t produce anything apart from glorious fresh mint and fragrant rose petals. Aside from that, the spices sit in the bleaching hot sun in the medina, losing all trace of their volatile oils.

A few months later, Birgit gifted us enough Egyptian dukka for all our wedding guests. For a long time, my spice rack bulged with Spice Shop treasures. I would buy her sweet Spanish paprika and love hearing its proper name, Pimentón La Odalisca-Desbinzado and I had a bag of her finest Cameroonian Penja peppercorns – she'd say to me: cook with white pepper and season the finished dish with black pepper – not the other way around!

After Luca was born, my focus turned to motherhood and away from the kitchen. My spices started to dwindle until I was down to the very basics.

That same spice rack has flown across the globe and now sits in a house on the east coast of Australia. Not quite restored to its former glory, but I am paying more attention to my spices lately. I've thrown out cheap old dusty bags and I'm paying good money for quality spices.

Still the usual suspects for now – some of them pictured above – but because my cooking has evolved (time, inclination and a toddler who doesn't eat all play their part!), so too has my spice rack. And that's OK.

Everything changes, we're always evolving. Priorities shift and our minds start to explore different paths. I might never have all those paprikas again, I may just stick to curing my salmon at Christmas with citrus instead of juniper and gin, and maybe our days of dinner parties that warrant 'pre-dinner nibbles' are long gone, but you know what? I embraced all that then, and I embrace what I have now.

A few spices that I use regularly are all I need. And definitely just the one variety of peppercorn.

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This marks the start of my spices series. I'm going to be exploring several spices, one at a time, accompanied by my own recipes. I can't wait to bring you the first one. Vanilla!

What about you... Do spices excite you? Favourites? Do you still enjoy pre-dinner nibbles?!

Linking in with Bron's Weekend Rewind.

16 comments:

  1. I have great sadness at neglecting pre-dinner nibbles. But then when would we have them, with dinner at 5.30? I love spices, but am finding my cooking is pretty simplified these days, and I just need the same-old same-old. Looking forward to this series! :)

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  2. Thanks for sharing your spice stories. Hubby loves to serve bread, oil and dukka regularly.

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  3. I'm salivating, bring on the spice series xx

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  4. I keep it simple these days too, and I really love white pepper. You can just about smell the spices in your picture :)

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    1. Oh you should have been here when we shot them! The air was thick with cardamom and vanilla!

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  5. Oh I'm buying cumin tomorrow and making roasted cauliflower! :) xx

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    1. It's divine Elisa. I very rarely do anything else with cauliflower. Break it up, drizzle with olive oil, some salt and pepper and then scatter the cumin over the top. I add ground coriander too at times. However much I make, it's never enough!

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  6. Hi Vanessa, thanks for visiting my blog and your lovely comment. Did you draw your header? Love it! Your spice article makes me want to clean out my tired old packets of spices and buy some new again...and try some new recipes.

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    1. Thank you Jill - my husband is the illustrator. Definitely not me! So glad you're inspired. x

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  7. Just reading your blog has made me hungry! My favourites are cinnamon and cloves - I use them constantly. But pepper, paprika and cumin are all thrown around with abandon! I was reading a fascinating book about spices in the middle ages recently - they used them lavishly and far more than we do (at least, those who could afford them!) A common one was galangal... which I'm having trouble finding now! I'll definitely be tracking down sumac.. and the spice shop is at the top of my list of places-to-go-in-london! I

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  8. Spices used in the right combinations and amounts delight my tastebuds and make a great meal out of an ordinary one. Now that I've given up eating sugar and refined foods, my favourites recently have just been salt and pepper on a good salad..with a little olive oil...delicious and simple!

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  9. Beautiful imagery in this post, Vanessa. I am a very basic cook (and fussy kids do not encourage kitchen creativity!) but I have been making the effort to branch out a little this year. In fact I used paprika tonight! I look forward to your spice series.

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  10. So many cultures really know how to use spices. Our cuisines hailing from America and UK are quite bland in comparison. I love Indian food, especially the aromas that hang in the air during the cooking process.

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  11. This is going to be so good! I'm HOPELESS with spices, but desperately want to be good. I'll be taking notes! I'd love your roasted cauli recipe too... x

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  12. I knew I liked you. Cumin and vanilla are two of my favorite spices - not together of course! Looking forward to the vanilla recipe. I love cooking tapioca with a vanilla pod for a delicious dessert like breakfast. x

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  13. Spice series - Yay! Am so looking forward to this.

    I had a huge spice draw in my old house - opening that draw brought me so much joy. Now that we're in the shed I've started using an old ornament shelf my grandad made me when I was little.

    I love how spices transform basic garden produce into something special.

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