What is Allspice?
Allspice takes its name from its aroma, which smells like a combination of spices, especially cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg. In much of the world, allspice is called pimento because the Spanish mistook the fruit for black pepper, which the Spanish called pimienta. This is especially confusing since the Spanish had already called chillies pimientos. Lets also thank the Spanish for centuries of linguistic confusion created by naming all the natives they met ‘Indians’.
Allspice is the only spice that is grown exclusively in the Western Hemisphere. The evergreen tree that produces the allspice berries is indigenous to the rainforests of South and Central America where it grows wild. Unfortunately the wild trees were cut down to harvest the berries and few remain today. There are plantations in Mexico and parts of Central America but the finest allspice comes from Jamaica where the climate and soil are best suited to producing the aromatic berries.
Allspice was used by the Mayans as an embalming agent and by other South American Indians to flavour chocolate. The name ‘Jamaica’ comes from Xamayca, meaning ‘land of wood and water’ in the language of the Arawaks. These natives used allspice to help cure and preserve meats, sometimes animals, sometimes their enemies. The allspice cured meat was known in Arawak as boucan and so later Europeans who cured meat this way came to be known as boucaniers, which ultimately became ‘buccaneers’.
The spice was imported to Europe soon after the discovery of the new world. There were several attempts made to transplant it to spice producing regions of the east, but these trees produced little fruit. Despite its rich fragrance and a strong flavour resembling other more coveted spices, allspice never had the same caché in Europe as cinnamon or pepper. The English started making regular shipments to England in 1737, but by that time the lust for spices been eclipsed by other New-World products like sugar and coffee. It was quite popular in England though, where it came to be known as ‘English Spice”.
In the Napoleonic war of 1812, Russian soldiers put allspice in their boots to keep their feet warm and the resultant improvement in odours is carried into today’s cosmetic industries, where pimento oil is usually associated with men’s toiletries (especially products with the word ‘spice’ on the label).
Dried allspice berries resemble large brown peppercorns. Unripe berries are harvested and sun dried until the seeds in them rattle. They vary in size between 4 to 7 mm (1/8 – 1/4 in) in diameter and are dark brown with wrinkled skins. The outer case contains two dark, hard kidney-shaped seeds. Allspice is available whole or ground. Sometimes the whole berry will be called ‘pimento’.
Bouquet: pungent and aromatic, like a combination of nutmeg, clove , ginger and cinnamon.
Flavour: warm and sweetly pungent like the combination described above with peppery overtones.
Hotness Scale: 4
Preparation and Storage
Whole dried allspice will keep indefinitely when kept out of light in airtight jars. It can be ground in a spice mill or an electric coffee grinder. The ground spice loses flavour quickly.
Culinary Uses of Allspice
Jerked meats like pork, chicken and kid reflect the Spanish/Jamaican background of Allspice. It is a particularly popular spice in European cooking, an important ingredient in many marinades, pickling and mulling spices. Many patés, terrines, smoked and canned meats include allspice. A few allspice berries are added to Scandinavian pickled herring, to Sauerkraut , pickles, soups, game dishes and English spiced beef. Traditionally, allspice has been used in cakes, fruit pies, puddings ice cream and pumpkin pie. Some Indian curries and pilaus contain allspice and in the Middle East it is used in meat and rice dishes. It is also used in liqueurs, notably Benedictine and Chartreuse. Allspice can be used as a substitute, measure, for measure, for cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg. Conversely to make a substitution for allspice, combine one part nutmeg with two parts each of cinnamon and cloves.
Attributed Medicinal Properties
Because of its eugenol content, allspice has attributes similar to clove. It is a digestive and carminative. The oil is classed as rubefacient, meaning that it irritates the skin and expands the blood vessels, increasing the flow of blood to make the skin feel warmer. The tannins in allspice provide a mild anesthetic that, with its warming effect, make it a popular home remedy for arthritis and sore muscles, used either as a poultice or in hot baths.
Plant Description and Cultivation
A tropical evergreen tree, growing 7 -13m (22-43 ft) in height. It has smooth grey bark, with elliptic, glossy leaves, dark green and glossy, up to 15 cm (6 in) long. It has small white flowers appearing in mid summer followed by green berries that turn purple when ripe. Trees are planted about 10m (30 ft ) apart, allowing room for a full canopy of fruit-bearing branches. Fruit starts to develop after about five years, and becomes full-bearing after twenty years. These plantations are not called orchards, but ‘walks” and in the summer, when whole trees are blanketed in aromatic flowers, the ‘pimento walk’ was a stroll through the grounds. The botanist Patrick Browne wrote in 1755: “nothing can be more delicious than the odour of these walks, when the trees are in bloom, as well as other times; the friction of the leaves and small branches even in a gentle breeze diffusing a most exhilarating scent. Berries are picked when they have reached full size, but before they can ripen. The height of the trees makes mechanizing the process difficult, so hand picking or pulling off branches is still common. Berries are then ‘sweat’ for a few days, then they are spread out on a concrete platform called a ‘barbeque’ where they are dried. Leaves from the male trees are also harvested for eugenol oil.
English Spice, Jamaica Pepper, Clove Pepper, Myrtle Pepper, Pimenta, Pimento
French: pimenta, tout-épice
Spanish: pimiento de Jamaica
Indian: kabab cheene, seetful
Pimenta dioica syn: Pimenta officinalis, Eugenia pimenta Fam: Myrataceae