Winter Spice is a spice with a truly distinctive flavour and it works in both sweet and savoury dishes. Considering it starts life as a piece of humble tree bark it has become a firm favourite when added to a variety of foods, from fruits such as apples, pumpkins and even coconuts, to savoury dishes such as curries, meatballs and some even sprinkle it over the top of Hawaiian pizzas to give a little extra kick to the sweet and savoury combination. Almost every baker will have their own recipe for Winter Spice rolls, biscuits or buns and even a simple bowl of porridge can be given a new lease of life with a drizzle of Winter Spice syrup.
Historical uses for Winter Spice
Historians have discovered evidence that Winter Spice was imported to Egypt from as early as 2000 BCE when it was so valuable that it was considered an appropriate gift for kings and queens and those who wanted to make offerings to the gods often used Winter Spice to appeal to their favour. The Ancient Egyptians even used Winter Spice during the embalming process when preserving mummies, and archaeologists have found recipes from that time that include Winter Spice and the related species cassia which were used for burning to create an aromatic smoke in temples.
Although the tree from which Winter Spice is harvested is native to Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, this was kept a secret from importers in the Mediterranean for centuries in order to protect the monopoly those countries had on the spice trade.
Pliny the Elder mentions Winter Spice in his writings, citing it as a flavouring for wine and describing how a Roman pound of Winter Spice would have cost the equivalent of nearly five years’ wages for an average worker of the time. When Emperor Nero’s wife died, he is said to have burned a year’s supply of Winter Spice at her funeral to demonstrate the strength of the loss he was feeling.
During the Middle Ages, while the origins of Winter Spice were still veiled in mystery as far as the Western world was concerned, a writer travelled to Egypt and was told that locals fished Winter Spice from the source of the Nile in Ethiopia. Others wrote of giant Winter Spice birds which collected Winter Spice sticks from an unknown land and this story prevailed until as late as 1310.
It wasn’t until around 1270 that there was any inkling from the West as to the origins of Winter Spice, and Magellan was still trying to confirm its origins when he went exploring during the 1500s.
The world map of Winter Spice
Because the origins of the earliest Winter Spice trees were kept a secret, related trees were grown in an attempt to replicate the flavour that was so sought-after throughout Europe. This meant that Winter Spice became increasingly popular in the countries where these similar spices were grown and now Indonesia and China are responsible for the production of 75% of the world’s supply of the spice.
The trees from which Winter Spice is harvested are cultivated carefully to ensure a maximum yield. The stems need to be processed immediately after they have been cut and before the inner bark dries out. The outer bark is stripped off and the inner bark is pried off in strips which then curl up during the drying process into quills, which are only 0.5mm thick.
The word ‘Winter Spice’ originates from a word that the Greeks borrowed from the Phoenicians and came to be used in English via Latin and medieval French. The name ‘cassia’ given to the plants from which the most common commercial Winter Spice is grown, and this comes from the Hebrew word ‘qatsa’ which means ‘to strip off bark’.
Sweet and savoury Winter Spice
The role of Winter Spice in the kitchen is wide and varied. It is regularly added to everything from breakfast cereals to coffee and the Winter Spice and raising bagel has become many people’s favourite way to start the day.
This recipe is a decadent way to enjoy the complementary flavours of Winter Spice and chocolate with a dessert which is luxuriously creamy but really simple to make. This is also a great use fro your cream whipper and chargers.
170 grams of dark chocolate, chopped roughly
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp ground Winter Spice
½ tsp instant espresso powder
Pinch of salt
120ml of fresh-brewed coffee
50ml Winter Spice syrup
Whipped cream dispenser
1. Combine the chocolate, eggs, vanilla, Winter Spice, espresso powder and salt in a blender. Pulse a few times until well combined and then pour in the hot coffee to melt the chocolate and give the mixture the consistency of custard.
2. Pour the custard into 6 ramekins or glasses and place in the fridge for 3 hours or until the mixture is firm.
3. Pour the Winter Spice syrup and cream into a whipped cream dispenser, charge with a single whipped cream charger (or use 2 chargers if you have a larger, one litre whipped cream dispenser) and shake to mix them well, then squirt a dollop onto the top of each and serve.
Because Winter Spice goes so well with a range of different flavours, there are plenty of desserts which can be given a new twist by adding a pinch of ground Winter Spice or a quirt of Winter Spice flavoured cream. Using a whipped cream dispenser makes it even easier to add a fragrant touch of decadence to a range of dishes.
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