We use them all year round, in a variety of dishes both sweet and savoury and in certain beverages, they are a must. However, it is at Christmas time that they really shine — their role at this time of the year is more than the flavours they impart, equally important is their aroma that fills the air, fills our senses and confirm that it’s that time of the year for lots of merry making.
Taking their rightful place and elevated to star-status, cinnamon and clove become not just one of those spices but the must-have spices. You doubt me? Try cooking this season without them and see what happens. Actually, taste what happens.
You’d eat the ham and say it just tastes like cured pork; drink the sorrel and it will taste like coloured sugar water. Ginger beer would be just some hot sweet liquid; pepperpot becomes meat in dark sauce. Need I go on?
Cinnamon — arguably the most popular spice in the world, is the dried bark of an evergreen tree (an evergreen plant is one which retains its leaves year-round). The trees can yield productive bark for about 45 years.
While cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka, it is also grown in countries like Vietnam, China, Indonesia and Central America. We need not look any further than our own “Spice Isle” here in the Caribbean, Grenada that not only produces 20 per cent of the world’s supply of nutmeg but also grows and exports cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, allspice and orange/citrus peels.
Cinnamon sticks are made from long pieces of bark that are rolled, pressed, dried and then cut. The bits or flakes left over from the cutting are called featherings which are then made into ground cinnamon powder.
Clove — once very costly, this strong, pungent spice is the dried unopened flower bud of Syzygium Aromaticum, yet another evergreen tree. This spice got its name from the Latin clavus “nail” because of the resemblance in shape; and just as the clove made its way around the world, the word itself, clove, travelled, making its way into English via old French, clou.
The buds are detached from their stalks and dried in the sun for about four to five days. Cloves are primarily harvested in Indonesia and Madagascar it is also grown in Tanzania, India and Sri Lanka.
Cinnamon and clove are essential in various spice mixes; most common to us would be Chinese Five Spice powder and Indian Garam Masala.
Together or apart, these spices impart a flavour that make certain drinks and dishes the real thing. That is why, for us, there would be no true Christmas without them.
Among the popular must-haves for Christmas throughout the Caribbean are ham, sorrel drink and ginger beer. The scent of the clove-studded ham baking in the oven as it mingles with the fruity glaze of pineapple jam while carols are playing on the radio and the voices of your loved ones can be heard in the next room are moments that make you realise how blessed you are to have such a moment.
Sorrel, that attractive, seasonal, tart red fruit makes for an excellent flavour paring with cinnamon and cloves. The quality of a good sorrel drink, like a proper cup of tea or ground coffee, lies in the steeping and in this case, with the appropriate amount of cinnamon and cloves to bring out all the right notes of the fruit.
As you fill your glass to the brim with the pink-red-fuchsia-burgundy, wine-coloured beverage and breathe in the aroma welcoming the sweet, spiced fruitiness of the sorrel drink, you realise that it’s the taste of the holidays in a glass.
Equally refreshing but with natural heat is ginger beer. Ginger by itself is flavourful and highly aromatic so you can just image when it’s teamed up with cinnamon and cloves what a powerful punch it packs. An ice-cold glass of ginger beer and a slice of Christmas cake are the usual offerings when you drop by for the expected, unannounced visit.
In dishes such as Guyanese Pepperpot and Antigua’s Seasoned Rice, cinnamon and cloves play key roles. Along with the cassareep (cassava extract), the spices penetrate the meat in Pepperpot, particularly the bones and make sucking on them pure delight.
So whatever you make, not just this holiday but all year round, remember to celebrate the cinnamon and clove as many of our foods and beverages will be poorer without them.
I hope all your Christmas plans are coming along well.
* Cynthia Nelson is a journalist, tutor, food photographer and author of the award-winning book: Tastes Like Home – My Caribbean Cookbook (IRP 2010). She writes regularly about food in various Caribbean Publications.
Book: Amazon (online) Locally: Pages, Cloister’s, and Days Bookstore.