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Spices & herbs

Allspice

Allspice is the dried, unripe berry of Pimenta officinalis, an evergreen of the myrtle family. Also known from its place of origin as Jamaica pepper and from its botanical name pimento.

It is neither a true pepper nor does it have any relationship to the capsicum or sweet red pepper, which we wrongly call pimento. Nor is it, as it is often thought by those who have only seen it in powdered form, a mixture of spices. It is called allspice because it is thought to have something of the aroma of cloves, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg. There certainly is a hint of cloves and pepper, but I cannot personally taste the nutmeg or cinnamon.

It is a useful substitute for pepper in almost any dish, just for a different flavour. It is mainly used in mixes, such as pickling spice or curry powders, or barbecue seasoning in the United States. The Polish call it kubaba, and use it whole in soups and pickling. Ground allspice is also a favourite with bakers.

Basil

An important culinary herb, the name basil has been attributed to several souces. The one that seems most fitting to us is that it comes from the Greek basileus, meaning king. Apparently the ancient Greeks themselves thought that only the King should cut basil leaves, using a golden sickle! More recently, farmer's wives gave gifts of potted basil to friends for cooking and to keep away flies. This tradition has sadly died out in Britain but continues in France, Italy and Greece.

Basil is an annual of the mint family, Ocimum basilicum. It is a small bushy plant that grows profusely and up to 60cm (2ft) in height. The leaves are glossy and a greyish colour. The flowers are green-purple with a hint of white in colour. To harvest basil, the branches are cut off just before the flowers are due to appear, but by cutting back only part of the way to the ground there is often a chance of a second crop that season.

One of the key Mediterranean herbs, its flavour is almost addictive, and there is little that a bit of basil cannot improve. Known as a tomato's best friend, it is also delicious on chicken, fish, pasta, stew, salads and vegetables. Add basil in the last 10 minutes of cooking as heat will dissipate its sweet, rich flavour. Fresh is best for salads and as a garnish but dried basil is excellent in cooking - a reminder of sun-kissed holidays in the Mediterranean.

Bay

Bay comes from the bay tree, Laurus nobilis, a member of the laurel family native to the Mediterranean and certain parts of Asia. It is grown commercially today in the Far East, the Mediterranean areas of Turkey and Greece and France, Belgium and America. It is relatively easy to grow in a pot or the garden throughout Europe - we have 2 trees in our garden and they overwinter here in North England without any problems. Bay trees can grow up to 15m high. The highly aromatic leaves are a dark green colour with a glossy top. They are usually 5cm in length and are very stiff and brittle. They are harvested by hand and then dried in trays under slight pressure to prevent curling.

In ancient times, bay leaves, or laurel, formed the wreath for poets and heroes and were the victor's crown in the Olympic Games of ancient Greece, as well as being the traditional crown of the Roman Emperors. The Greeks and Romans dedicated the bay to Apollo and Aesculapius, the God of Medicine. It became an important symbol of success and achievement, so that when a bay tree died it was thought a disaster was on the way.

Turkish bay leaves are the best in the world - they have a natural depth of flavour that few can hope to match. Bay leaves grow wild on the hilly mountains of western Turkey in the area around Izmir. The wind there is perfect for growing bay leaves. Most of the year it comes out of the west across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, picking up moisture and dropping it on the growing trees. At the end of the summer the wind changes direction and comes from the south. Before it reaches the hills around Izmir it passes over a couple of mountain ridges, making it hot and dry, perfect for quickly drying the leaves with a minimum of flavour loss.

Bayleaves have a strong, spicy flavour and a striking aroma which becomes even more apparent when the leaves are shredded or crushed. In cooking, bay leaves can be used whole, cut up or ground to give a strong and pungent flavour and the whole leaves are usually removed before food is served.

A key ingredient of Bouquet Garni, the flavour of bay leaves is perfect for adding to roast pork or chicken, turkey, or ham, use 2 - 3 leaves and remove before serving. Bay leaves are also perfect for spaghetti sauce, casseroles and chicken soup, use 2 per litre.  Bay leaves can, also, improve the flavour of salt-free dishes with their rich flavour.

Caraway

Caraway seed comes from a hardy biennial native to Europe and Asia Minor, called Carum carvi. It grows to a height of approximately 60cm. The bulk of imports to Britain come from Holland. The seed, brown in colour, has ridges running down its length, being 4mm - 7mm long and crescent shaped. Caraway is a characteristic flavour of Germanic cooking - it has a warm, sweet and slightly sharp taste, which is a favourite in many kinds of breads and cakes.

It has been used as a spice and medicine for over 5000 years and remains of caraway seeds have been found in meals from the Stone Age. The Egyptians buried their dead with it and Isaiah, the Biblical Prophet, wrote about caraway cultivation. It is mentioned in Shakespeare and was reintroduced into Britain by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband. In ancient Greece, caraway was used to calm an upset stomach and to season foods that were hard to digest.

Today cooks continue the tradition, adding caraway to rye bread, cabbage dishes (sauerkraut and coleslaw), pork, cheese sauces, cream soups, goose, and duck. The Germans make a delicious caraway liqueur called Kummel, which we love to serve straight from the freezer as a digestive after a heavy meal.

Cardamom

Essentially a spice of oriental cookery, the seeds come from 2 plants of the ginger family, Elettaria cardamonum and Amoomum cardamomum. Cardamom is a tall herbaceous perennial, native to India, growing abundantly in the Cardamom Hills of the Malabar Coast at 600m - 1200m (2500ft - 5000ft) above sea level. The plant grows to a height of 2 - 5 metres. The leaves are lance shaped and may attain a length of 1 metre. The cardamom pod is about 1cm - 2cm long and contains 15 - 20 dark brown/black seeds. Cardamom is a pod consisting of an outer shell with little flavour and tiny inner seeds. These seeds give the aroma and flavour, but importance is put also on the appearance of the pod.

Cardamomhas a sweet, spicy and highly aromatic flavour, slightly reminiscent of eucalyptus. Early Egyptians used the seeds for medicinal purposes and chewed them to keep their teeth white. Nowadays Arab countries, who are by far the largest consumers, grind them and put them in coffee. In Britain, India and the Middle East, a pleasant green colour is preferred, whereas in America and Scandinavia a creamy white appearance is favoured. To get the creamy appearance the cardamoms are picked and left in the sun or are bleached artificially. Fancy white and green pods have no splits or cracks in the shell, so the flavour keeps well.

In Northern Europe (especially Scandinavia), white cardamom is used to season baked goods, such as Christmas stollen, cakes, cookies, muffins and buns and sausages. In India, where both green and black cardamom are used, it is an important ingredient in meat and vegetable dishes. Black cardamom, long a staple in African cooking, was originally used in India as a cheap substitute for green cardamom pods. Black cardamom has a unique smoky flavour and has developed its own following over the years.

Cassia

Cassia is the dried inner bark of the Cinnamomum cassia tree. It is of the same botanical family as cinnamon, having a more intense flavour compared to cinnamon without its delicacy and subtlety of flavour and aroma. The main imports into Britain are of Cinnamomum cassia liqnea from China and Cinnamomum cassia vera from the East Indies. When the trees are fully-grown, patches are cut from the bark. Two longitudinal slits are made into the bark, which is then carefully removed, from the tree. The bark is then cut up into convenient lengths and is laid in the sun to dry. When dried the bark curls up and is tied into bundles for export. The bark is approximately 10cm thick. Cassia spice (ground bark) is reddish/brown in colour, darker and redder than cinnamon.

Cayenne pepper

Cayenne pepper has the power to make any dish fiery hot, but it also has a subtle flavour-enhancing quality. However, overuse can kill the taste buds so use an infinitesimal amount.

Cayenne pepper comes from ground, dried capsicums, Capsicum annuum, which are native to Central America, Japan and Mexico. It is an annual plant, 30cm - 90cm high, with white flowers. The fruits or capsicums grow to approximately 7cm - 8cm in length and from 1cm - 2cm across at its base, coming to a point at its apex. The pod contains small round yellow seeds, which possess the tremendous spicy heat. The pod is orange to bright red, which gives the red appearance of the ground product.

Cayenne pepper is used quite a lot in British cooking to add zest to cheese sauces to plain unadorned sardines and other seafood, such as crab, lobster and oysters. If you are like us and prefer your oysters cooked, we make them as follows: add uncooked spinach into the oyster shell, adding a little bit of dry white wine and cayenne pepper, heat under grill for 1 - 2 minutes, place oyster on top of spinach and cook for 1 - 2 minutes, followed by grating some parmesan onto this and grill until melted.

Chives

The chive is a well-known member of the onion group, Allium schoenoprasum. It was introduced into Britain by the Romans, but is recorded in ancient Chinese writings 2500 years ago. Chives are a small grass like hardy perennial about 15cm - 30cm high. They are similar to onions. They have wonderful lilac-coloured pompom flowers and upright bottom leaves - their big brothers and sisters - make dramatic statements in herbaceous borders around the UK. Chives flourish in the cooler climates of the northern hemisphere and are grown commercially in Germany, UK and Scandinavia.

This sweet herb has a delicate onion flavour and is often used in cold dishes, because heat quickly consumes its flavour. Try in marinated vegetables or mix with butter and lemon and melt over broiled fish. It is traditionally used on soup as a garnish - a sprinkling dropped on each bowl at the last moment before serving.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, is an ancient spice mentioned several times in the Old Testament, although it was only Chinese cinnamon (or cassia) that was known in Europe until the 16th century. Compared to the Chinese species, Ceylon cinnamon has a much more delicate, citrus aroma and flavour.

Cinnamon comes from the fine inner skin of fragrant tree bark, which grows wild throughout Asia. It takes 20 - 30 years of growth before cinnamon can be harvested from a tree. Thereafter, the trees continue to grow and produce cinnamon for many years. At harvest time, local farmhands gather and travel to the sometimes very remote areas where the trees grow. For cinnamon sticks, the upper branches are carefully cut and the inner bark removed, which curls naturally into quills about 2½ cm in diameter. Cinnamon sticks are attractive and uniform, with a slightly sweet flavour. For ground cinnamon, large chunks are removed from the lower, older bark, which is stronger and more flavourful.

Since Ceylon cinnamon is native in South Asia, it is not surprising that the cuisines of Sri Lanka and India make heavy use of it. It is equally suited for the fiery beef curries of Sri Lanka and the subtle, fragrant rice dishes (biriyanis) of the Imperial North Indian cuisine. It is, also, used for flavouring tea. Cinnamon is also popular in all regions where Persian or Arab influence is felt - the Near and Middle East, the Arab peninsular and North Africa, from Morocco to Ethiopia.

However, although cinnamon was very popular in Europe in the 16th to 18th centuries, its importance has declined with its main use now being in various desserts - sprinkled on custards, milk puddings and stewed fruits - but it is also delicious with eggs and courgettes. It was the original aromatic for chocolate and its still fun to use a cinnamon stick to stir Hot Chocolate. The sticks are also used whole for mulled wine and punch. It is making a resurgence with the interest in Mexican cooking, making an important addition to any Chilli Con Carne.

Cloves

Cloves are an ancient spice and, because of their exceptional aromatic strength, have always been held in high esteem by cooks in Europe, Northern Africa and most of Asia. They are the flower buds of the evergreen myrtle, Eugenia aromatica. The pink flower buds are picked before opening and dried in the sun where they turn a reddish brown.

Cloves are one of the great spices from the Moluccas, subsequently introduced to Penang, Amboyna, Madagascar and, despite the attempts of the Dutch colonists to systematically destroy the shrubs wherever and whenever they found them, into Zanzibar, which became the largest supplier.

Trade between the "clove island" Ternate and China can be traced back at least 2500 years. In China, cloves were not only used for cooking but also for deodoration - anyone having an audience with the emperor had to chew cloves to prevent any undesired smell. Arab traders brought cloves to Europe in the time of the Romans. When the Europeans, in the Age of Exploration, finally found the clove-producing islands, they took enormous interest in securing a constant spice supply: on the small island of Ternate (9km in diameter), there are at least 10 fortresses of Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch origin that can still be visited today. During the 17th century, the Dutch had an effective monopoly over the clove trade, guaranteeing very high profits to the Dutch East India Company.

But the Dutch heritage in today's Ternate is surprisingly small, particularly in comparison to the great Dutch influence still felt in the nutmeg producing Banda islands. There remains an Islamic Sultan in Ternate with his great palace full of Chinese ceramics of all epochs. For tradition's sake, he still regularly gives sacrifices to Hindu deities and, if the island volcano Gamalama (1700 m) becomes active, he circumnavigates the island three times in his magic canoe, as his ancestors did in Hindu and even pre-Hindu days. Yet don't get lulled by this picture of idyllic backwardness - Ternate is an economically productive area, houses the administration authorities for the whole North Moluccas and its sultan takes part in Indonesian domestic and foreign politics. Furthermore, there are only a few places in Indonesia where people show much regional patriotism at all.

Cloves are strongly aromatic and have a pungent, spicy taste, frequently associated with Christmas. In Europe, cloves are mainly considered a sweet baking spice, lifting the favour of pears and apples. Whole cloves are a must for pickling meats and studding hams (especially for a glazed Christmas ham) and can be used to "stud" an onion to flavour bread sauce. The flavour is quite strong so use sparingly. Because cloves bring out the flavour of beef, add a whole clove to beef stew or a tiny pinch of ground cloves to gravy. Cloves are a vital component of gluhwein, at least in our household, where we add some cloves to red wine, orange juice and cinnamon to make the popular Christmas drink.

Coriander

Coriander seeds are the fruit of Coriandrum sativum, a plant of the umbelliferae family. It grows in Southern Europe, Sicily, Africa, India, Mexico, Cyprus and Spain. Coriander fruits are a common spice in many countries of Europe, North Africa and in much of Asia. In the Mediterranean region, coriander cultivation dates back to ancient Egypt. Coriander is mentioned in the Bible, where it is compared to manna, and was introduced into Britain by the Romans. In Europe, coriander has been used since the Middle Ages.

Coriander leaves (also called coriander green) are popular over most of Asia. Used in India regionally (eg in Maharashtra), they are indispensable in Thailand (for green curry paste both the root and the leaves are needed), Vietnam and parts of China, where the chopped leaves appear as decorations on nearly every dish (sometimes combined with or substituted by peppermint or Vietnamese coriander). Coriander leaves resemble European parsley leaves in a number of ways: they have a similar shape and are both best used raw, as the flavour vanishes after prolonged cooking. In both plants, the root has a similar flavour to the leaves though its flavour tolerates boiling or simmering much better. These similarities have motivated names like Indian or Chinese parsley for coriander leaves.

The seeds are aromatically sweet and make a mild and spicy flavour. Coriander is an essential part of curry powder and Indian masalas in Northern India (garam masala) and in the South (sambaar podi). Roasting or frying, much practised in India and Sri Lanka, enhances the flavour. Ethiopian berbere, which resembles Indian spice mixtures, contains coriander fruits.

Arabic cooking makes use of both coriander leaves and fruits. Zhoug (or zhug), a spicy paste typical for Yemeni cookery, is a recipe that contains both coriander leaves and fruits besides green chillis, garlic, cardamom and black pepper. The paste is then used as a relish, bread dip or condiment. Use of coriander leaves is also frequent in Latin America, especially Mexico (in salsa or ceviche).

Cumin

Throughout the world, cumin is second in popularity only to black pepper, especially in Latin America, North Africa and all over Asia. Today, in Europe cumin tends only to be used to flavouring cheese in the Netherlands and in France, although it was a common spice in the Roman Empire. Dutch mature gouda flavoured with cumin seeds is fantastic, eat it on freshly baked bread spread liberally with a good butter (very simple, but fantastic traditional food). Cumin is a low growing annual. The slender plant has a branching stem, long, narrow deep green leaves and small white or rose-coloured flowers. The oblong fruits or seeds are ½ cm long and yellowish-brown in colour. Cumin is one of the most typical spices for India, especially the Southern part.

The fruits are used whole, and are fried (frequently together with onion) or dry-roasted before usage. Legumes, especially lentils, are normally flavoured by cumin fried in butter. The seeds form an important part of curry powder and of a popular Bengali spice mixture, panch phoron. Lastly, cumin is essential for the preparation of Northern Indian tandoori dishes. The fragrance of roasted cumin, often with coriander, leaves an everlasting impression of Southern Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine!

Dill

Dill is a member of the parsley family, Amethum graveolens, similar in appearance to fennel but distinctly different in taste and smell. It is native to Asia Minor and Europe, but it can be grown in almost all temperate zones. Most of the dill seed imported into this country comes from India. Dill has feathery, bluish-green leaves and flat yellow glowers. The seeds are oval in shape and very much compressed, so as to be almost flat. Each seed has 5 longitudinal ridges and is approximately 3mm - 5mm in length and 2mm - 3mm in width. It is light brown in colour. Dill is heavily used in traditional German and Scandinavian cooking, such as pickled herrings.

Dill weed's flavour, lighter and sweeter than dill seed, along with its bright green, feathery appearance, makes it a perfect addition to omelettes, cheese sauces, salad dressings and dips. Dill is traditionally added to any dish with a white sauce, from potato salad to sour cream fresh vegetable dip.

Fennel

Fennel is again from the parsley family, Foeniculum vulgare. It has been grown for 1000s of years as a culinary herb in China, India and Greece. In Classical Greece, it was used as a symbol of success and was called "marathon" after their famous victory over the Persians in 490 BC. A tall hardy perennial, fennel has delicate, bright green foliage and yellow flowers. It is native to Southern Europe, but does grow wild in Britain - the green foliage is well known in British cooking, but the seeds are largely ignored. However, the fruits (often mistakenly referred to as "seeds") are used throughout Europe and Asia, but there is no region where extensive fennel usage is especially typical. Many Mediterranean, Arabic, Iranian, Indian or even Central European dishes require a small pinch of them. Fennel seeds are grown in France, Germany, Italy, India and America and are a component of the Chinese 5 spice powder and the Bengali 5 spice, panch phora.

Fennel has a flavour that is slightly reminiscent of anise. It is popular for meat dishes, but even more so for fish and sea food; its sweet taste also harmonizes with the earthy aroma of bread and gives pickles or vinegar a special flavour. A few fennel seeds, and I mean no more than three or four, scattered onto red mullet before it is grilled adds a more subtle flavour to this fish. They are also good in apple pies.

Fenugreek

Fenugreek comes from the seed of Trigonella foenum-graecum, a member of the bean family. Fenugreek is an ancient spice, although a lot of Europeans people seem to dislike its flavour. The Ancient Egyptians used it as a food, medicine and embalming agent, while the Greeks and Romans cultivated fenugreek for food and medicine.

It is now mostly used in the Middle East and India, especially for pickles. Dry roasting enhances the flavour, taking some of the bite from its bitterness - care must be taken not to overheat the seeds. Small amounts of fenugreek are found in good curry powders and the Jewish sweet dish, halva. Fenugreek is popular in Southern India and appears in the ubiquitous Tamil spice mixture, sambaar podi. Lastly, the bitter-aromatic seeds constitute an essential part of the Bengali 5 spice mixture, panch phoron.

Garlic

Garlic is probably the most heavily used seasoning in the world. All of the world's great cuisines from Chinese through Italian to French make abundant use of its distinctive pungent flavours and aromas.

It is also one of the oldest flavourings - it was cultivated in ancient Egypt, China and India and was a common food of the Egyptian labourers when building the pyramids and later of the Roman soldier and labourer, but rejected by the upper class because of the smell. Garlic is a hardy perennial of the onion family, Allium sativum. It has long flat, solid leaves. The flower stalk grows erect from the bulb and the flowers are whitish, tinged with purple. The bulb consists of several small egg-shaped cloves, enclosed in a white membrane.

The characteristic odour is present in the whole plant, but is strongest in the bulb. Garlic has a pungent smell and its own characteristic flavour that does not resemble any other herb. For a subtle flavour, rub the garlic clove, as well as other seasonings like salt and pepper, into lamb chops or any other meat before cooking.

Ginger

Ginger, Zingiber officinale, is one of the most important and valued spices worldwide - its pleasant properties were mentioned by Confucius (551 - 479BC) and in the Koran. It is essential for Asian and Indian dishes where it is used to season meat, seafood and vegetables in many ways - from Indian curries to Japanese marinades and Chinese stir-fry.

Many people like raw ginger, and this is the form most popular in South East Asia. Fresh ginger is grated or finely chopped, optionally soaked in water for several hours, and then added to the dish not long before serving. This kind of usage will result in a fresh, spicy and pungent taste. If fresh ginger is cooked, it will increase in pungency but decrease in freshness. Thais add grated ginger together with many other ingredients (in the form of curry pastes) to their creamy coconut milk curries. Indonesians frequently use spice pastes based on fresh chillis and ginger to rub meat before grilling or baking. Ginger tea, prepared by cooking slices of fresh ginger for a few minutes, is a spicy and healthy drink enjoyed in hot tropic climates (Indonesia), but also in the cold Himalayas (Sikkim). The flavour of fried ginger (preferred in India and Sri Lanka) is completely different - if chopped ginger is fried (typically, together with garlic or onion), the hot and spicy taste gives way to a mild, rich flavour. Northern Indian recipes make a great deal of use of this technique as the basis for delicious sauces to vegetable or meat dishes. In Chinese cookery, fresh ginger is used both boiled and fried. Food that needs a long simmering time is often flavoured with slices of ginger, because the slices release their flavour quite slowly.

A great and well-known recipe of stir-fry is gong bao, also spelled kung pao. Firstly, cut chicken breasts are marinated in a thick mixture of egg white, soy sauce, rice wine and corn starch, which both acts as a marinade and provides a soft coating after frying. Dried red chillis are then fried in very hot oil until almost black; then, chopped ginger, garlic and the chicken pieces are tossed in. The meat is tender within a few minutes; after adding some hot bean paste and peanuts, the dish is ready to serve. With its liberal usage of chillis and fresh ginger, gong bao illustrates very well the cuisine of Sichuan, China's most spicy cooking style.

Ginger has its place even in the cuisine of Japan, where it is used in small quantities only. For example, chicken is flavoured by rubbing it with juice obtained from squeezing fresh ginger rhizome. Pickled ginger (beni shouga), which owes its reddish-pink colour to perilla leaves, is prepared from very young ginger rhizomes and is often served with sushi. Ginger, being today grown as a cash crop in both Africa and Latin America, has entered many local cuisines. Some recipes for Jamaican jerk paste use ginger, which is not surprising since Jamaica's ginger is of extraordinary quality. Dried ginger, on the other side, is rather different in taste and cannot substitute the fresh one.

Dried ginger is an optional component of curry powders and even of the Chinese 5 spice powder; furthermore, it appears in berbere, a spice mixture from Ethiopia. Dried ginger is not much used in regions where fresh ginger is traditionally available. The taste is more aromatic than pungent and has found some applications in Europe, especially for baking. It does enhance the taste of gravies and soups. A pinch of ginger is very nice to boost the flavour of salt-free dishes, and ginger is also a flavourful addition to chicken soup, sautéed vegetables, and roast chicken or pork.

For delicious grilled steak, rub ginger, garlic and black or white pepper on meat, marinate a few hours before cooking. But overall, powdered ginger has fallen out of use in savoury cooking within Europe and is seldom called for in newer cook books, but it has been retained in the French spice mixture quatre épices, which goes back to baroque cooking styles. However, ginger is still regularly used in bakery, from ginger cakes through to gingerbread men.

Juniper

The fruit of Juniperus communis, a shrub of the cypress family, native to the British Isles. The shrub has reddish stems with needle-like leaves and small yellow flowers. The berries take 3 years to ripen and are first green, then bluish and finally black. It is the highly aromatic and pungent juniper berry that gives its name to gin and remains the most important aromatic within the distinctive flavour of gin.

The humble juniper berry has enjoyed a renaissance of its ancient popularity with the growth in traditional British cooking - as a seasoning for game, as the country's top restaurants list venison, pheasant and rabbit on their menus. A few juniper berries, which should be crushed beforehand in a mortar, will reduce the wild flavour of these meats and will add the pleasant tartness to stuffed goose and beef stews. Juniper tea is a centuries old hangover remedy.

Lavender

Since the 6th century, lavender has been a popular scented garden shrub and many varieties of different heights and colour have been developed. The original is Lavandula vera, the Old English Lavender, which has the finest aroma. The Libyans and Romans used to add it to their bath-water in much the same way as we still do today. Throughout history, lavender has been used as a stewing herb as well as for its scent, being placed among clothes and linen. Lavender has a sweet aromatic taste which will give flavour to anything it is added to. It has a tranquillising effect, so soothes frazzled nerves and depressed spirits. As well as having it in Herbes de Provence, try adding a little to roast lamb along with the rosemary to give the lamb a slightly more flowery flavour.

Lemongrass

A key seasoning ingredient for the foods of Southeast Asia, lemongrass is also used, but to a lesser extent, in India and China. If possible, use fresh lemongrass, because much flavour is lost in the drying process. If fresh is not available, these cross cuts of the lower stem make the best substitute. The lemony flavour combines well with the ginger-garlic mix that is the backbone of most Asian cuisines. Lemongrass can be thrown into soups and sauces or ground with other spices to make the traditional Thai-style curry paste.

Marjoram

Marjoram is a perennial herb of the mint family, Origanum majorana has a long history as a preserving and disinfectant herb. It was used extensively by the Greeks and gave it its name meaning 'joy of the mountains'. The Romans introduced it to Britain and it is now grown principally in Portugal and France. With a sweet and spicy flavour with overtones of pepper, marjoram is very popular throughout Europe and is frequently found in Polish, Italian and French cooking.

Closely related to oregano, marjoram has a sweet, flowery flavour. Like basil, marjoram should be added near the end of cooking. Marjoram improves the flavour of tomato sauce, bean soup, marinated vegetables and salad dressing, and is a traditional addition to Polish sausage (kielbasa). Marjoram is also excellent in place of or, in addition, to oregano or basil on baked chicken or a pasta side-dish.

Mint

Mint is a popular and well-known herb across the globe with many varieties and hybrids. Spearmint, apple mint and peppermint are the 3 main types and they grow right across the temperate zones of the world. They all have the same distinctive and refreshing aroma, with a cooling effect which is most pronounced in peppermint. The main commercial growing centres are Britain, France, Egypt, Argentina, Romania, Russia, Bulgaria and Morocco. Spearmint is the normal type used for seasoning lamb or for jellies - mint is a classic British herb for seasoning new potatoes and in mint sauce for lamb.

Its sweet and delicate flavour adds to the taste of these dishes without any risk of the original flavour being lost. It is also used in the Middle East for salads, tabouli, marinated vegetables and many other dishes. Peppermint has a rather warm and spicy flavour, and is used mostly for making candy and chocolate sauces, where it is infused into alcohol, oil or water before using. Both can be steeped alone for green tea, or mixed with Orange Pekoe, Irish or English Breakfast tea. In many gardens the problem is not how to grow mint but how to curb it in the summer months where it frequently takes over!

Mustard

Mustard is one of the oldest known culinary and medicinal spices, the Romans and Greeks were believed to have used table mustard as we do today. The oldest known recipe was written in the 1st century AD. There are 2 distinct varieties - Brassica alba and Brassica nigra, yellow and black mustard respectively. Both have been used as condiments since at least AD 300. Yellow mustard seed is the traditional type sold in grocery stores. Try whole mustard seeds in barbecue sauce and rubs, or marinades for grilling. The seeds become very soft, giving great flavour and an attractive appearance. It is easy to sprout and grow mustard seeds (brown seeds grow into an attractive purplish sprout). Both the sprouts and the greens (leaves) make a tasty, slightly sharp addition to salads and sandwiches. Brown mustard seed is smaller and hotter, traditional for Asian and African cooking, and comes from the Indian mustard, Brassica ramosa.

In India, whole brown seeds are fried in oil until a popping sound is heard. This gives the seeds a nutty flavour, important in many vegetarian dishes. When making mustard, use stainless steel, glass or ceramic utensils and containers (aluminium gives mustard an odd flavour).

For a standard thickness, use 8 parts mustard by volume to 7 parts liquid. Mustard is very hot when first mixed, and then mellows with age. Refrigeration nearly stops the mellowing process. For a nippy, but not overpowering mustard, store at room temperature for 6 weeks, then move to refrigerator. Try 4 weeks for hot mustard and 8 weeks for mild. An easy starter recipe is 225ml regular mustard powder (110g by weight), 85ml vinegar, 85ml cool water, ½ tsp salt, and 1tbs honey. Mix until smooth, then pack in glass jars. Feel free to experiment.

Nutmeg and mace

Nutmeg is one of the old spices. Along with cloves and pepper, nutmeg has been cultivated for thousands of years, and remains popular in Europe today, especially for baking. Allegedly it is an aphrodisiac and is therefore a banned substance in certain countries.

Nutmegtrees are native to the Moluccas (the spice islands). Growing and cultivation of the plants (and even the location of the islands) were secrets jealously guarded by the Dutch East Indies Company, which kept a lock on nutmeg production, often in a very nasty way, for hundreds of years. Nutmeg trees have since been transported throughout Indonesia, and also to the West Indies - most notably Grenada, which has the perfect climate for growing large, beautiful nutmeg. Nutmeg trees grow to be tall (up to 25 metres) and bushy, with glossy, dark green leaves.

The tree produces two spices: nutmeg, which is the inner seed kernel of the pale yellow, peach-like fruit, and the softer flavoured mace, which grows as a lace-like covering over the nutmeg's outer shell. When the fruit is fully ripened, it will split open, revealing a glimpse of the fresh, scarlet-red mace inside. The nutmeg is largest and most flavourful at this point. In Indonesia, the trees are cultivated on large plantations. With enough space around each tree, the branches will bush out fairly low to the ground, and the nutmeg can be harvested using a long, hand-held pole with a woven wicker basket attached to the end.

Where the trees are allowed to grow wild surrounded by other plants on rocky slopes, such as in Grenada, nutmeg is harvested by extremely talented tree climbers, doing all the work by hand. While there are large plantations in Grenada, it is very common to see people going to the collecting station, balancing a basket of harvested nutmeg on their heads, to earn some money from the four or five trees on the family property, or the wild ones along the road.

The fruit of the nutmeg tree is now split and discarded (or used to make jam) before the nutmeg is hauled to the collection area and drying building. The mace, which commands a higher price, is carefully weighed and paid for, and then the same is done for the nutmeg, still encased in its outer shell. The nutmeg is spread out on wire mesh drying racks in long, low buildings with good air flow, and is left to dry for several weeks. Sometimes nutmeg shells are lit and left to smolder underneath the racks to aid in the drying process.

At that point the nutmeg will have shrunk a bit, and will rattle inside the shell, which is then cracked off. The mace has also dried at this point, turning from the most brilliant natural red colour known to man (well worth a trip to the Caribbean or Indonesia just to see!), to a deep, amber gold. The nutmeg and mace are then bagged up in burlap and shipped out, mostly to Holland, where fine nutmeg and mace are truly appreciated.

Oregano

Mediterranean oregano, Origanum vulgare, was originally grown around the Mediterranean, but its use in the UK has increased in recent years due to the increasing popularity of pizza and Italian food. Confusingly, oregano has been called wild marjoram! Mediterranean and Mexican oregano are two different plants, but because they are used in the same way and have a somewhat similar flavour they are both called oregano. Mediterranean oregano grows wild on the hilly mountainsides of southern Europe and is an essential ingredient in so many of the dishes from the region.

From Italian spaghetti sauces to Greek salads to Turkish kebabs, the sweet, strong flavour of Mediterranean oregano is perfect. Mexican oregano is stronger and less sweet, well-suited to the spicy, hot, cumin-flavoured dishes of Mexico and Central America - perfect for chilli and salsa. Both types of oregano should be added in the beginning of cooking, so the flavour has time to come out and meld with the other flavours of the dish. Add while browning onions or beef for both spaghetti sauce and chilli.

Paprika

Paprika is the ground dried sweet pepper of Capsicum annuum, the sweet pepper which is sometimes called pimento. The best paprika pepper comes from Hungary. Not only does Hungary have the abundance of sunshine needed to grow the world's best paprika, it also has knowledgeable farmers capable of nurturing the crop from planting to harvest. In Hungary more than 40 types of paprika are grown. The farmers determine which type will produce the sweetest, most colourful crop based on their weather predictions for the coming year. The quality of the paprika in this year's crop will depend on how much sunlight Southern and Eastern Hungary receive in the weeks before the harvest. Hungarian paprika is great for not only adding vibrant colour, but rich pleasing flavour to traditional dishes like Hungarian Goulash. Hungarian sweet paprika also enhances simple baked chicken.

Parsley

Parsley is one of the most popular herbs and is a rich source of vitamins, proteins and various minerals. Petroselinum crispum or curly parsley is a biennial herb but since its foliage is the harvested item, it is now grown as an annual. Most of the parsley used in Britain is local and it is also probably our favourite herb. Parsley needs plenty of water to encourage the growth of the dense foliage. To preserve the flavour, the leaves of the plant need rapid drying. With a mild and agreeable, tangy sweet and rich flavour, parsley is a popular kitchen herb. It brings out the flavour of other spices and herbs used and goes well as a garnish for soups, salads, meats, poultry and sauces.

Pepper

The world's most valuable though not most expensive spice. If there is only one spice in your kitchen, it has to be pepper. No other spice adds the greatest amount of flavour to the widest range of dishes.

For thousands of years, black pepper has been the spice of choice for those who could afford it. There is something about the exotic yet familiar taste, about that hot, biting and pungent flavour of black pepper that makes it the perfect seasoning for almost any food. Now that modern production and transport have made pepper affordable enough for everyone to enjoy, it is more popular than ever, outselling all other spices.

Pepper, Piper nigrum, grows in warm, moist sunny climates, usually within about 15° of the equator. In most countries pepper is grown as a commodity to be sold at a prefixed price per tonne, and is picked as soon as the berries are formed on the vine. When quality brings no extra cash, and margins are preciously slim, farmers can't take any chances - the longer the peppercorns are left on the vine, the greater the risk that they will be eaten by birds, or that the whole crop could be lost in a devastating storm.

However, in a few places like India and Borneo, pepper is viewed as more than just a commodity. Here, it is part of the cultural heritage of the people, making growing and harvesting more like craftwork than factory production. Extra time and effort are taken to nurture the plants to produce the bold, rich flavours that have made pepper the king of spices for millennia. Both Tellicherry and Malabar black pepper come from the same plant and are harvested at the same time. Malabar black pepper (or MG1 black pepper) is already a big step up from other peppers. Their size is noticeably larger in comparison with what supermarkets sell as black pepper. Tellicherry are even larger, having matured further before harvesting. Some spikes of peppercorns are in a better location on the vine and receive more sunlight. Even on the individual spikes the corns towards the top tend to get more sunlight and more nutrients, maturing faster as well.

Only the largest 10% are able to bear the name Tellicherry. The growing and grading of pepper are taken very seriously; pepper is more than a crop with monetary benefits, it is a part of the Indian culture. In the Sarawak region of the island of Borneo, as in India, the local farmers use their experience and knowledge gained over the centuries to grow and harvest their pepper crops. In India, the peppercorns are dried in the sun for about a week, losing a share of their flavour in the process.

This method is used for nearly all of the pepper in Borneo as well, but now with the help of the Ministry of Agriculture in Sarawak, the largest of the crop are rapidly dried indoors with hot air to prevent such a loss. Sheltering the pepper from the elements produces more fully-flavoured, cleaner peppercorns that fetch a higher price for the farmers. This technique was developed in response to the demands of meticulous German sausage makers who wanted extra clean pepper for their unique, cold-curing process, and were willing to pay extra for it. While the size of a peppercorn is important, maturity is the most important factor.

As strong as the urge is to make an analogy to people, the analogy to tomatoes is probably better. The largest peppercorns from a crop, like our Tellicherry and Sarawak, are better than the small ones for much the same reason that vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh from the garden in the middle of August, are better than shelf-ripened tomatoes from the supermarket in January. A tomato plant produces something that looks like a tomato fairly quickly, but it is only in the final weeks of ripening that the rich, sweet flavour develops. Peppercorns are the same way. Immature pepper is still nice and well worth a trip to the market, but it is that extra ripening time that makes the trip half-way around the world, possibly stumbling upon Britain along the way, seem like a worthwhile effort. Malabar peppercorns are regarded as having the finest flavour of the mass-produced varieties. A step above Malabar is Tellicherry - a larger and more mature peppercorn, possessing a more developed flavour.

White peppercorns start out the same as black pepper, but then are allowed to ripen more fully on the vine. The black outer shell is then removed in one of two ways: the Muntok peppercorns are soaked in water until the black shell loosens, while the Sarawak peppercorns are held under a constantly flowing stream of artesian spring water, yielding a whiter colour, and an extra clean product. White peppercorns have a traditional rich, winey, somewhat hot flavour that is nice used in soup, on grilled meat or poultry, in light-coloured dishes, or mixed with black pepper for a broader range of flavour. Preferred for cooking the foods of Southeast Asia, and Southern and Eastern Europe.

Pink peppercorns

From the French island of Réunion. These expensive pink peppercorn berries add a touch of colour and a rich, sweet flavour to almost any dish. Unlike the black, white and green, pink peppercorns really aren't peppercorns, but they are called so because of their size and flavour. Called for in almost anything-from poultry to vegetables and fish.

Poppy seeds

They do not contain opium! Poppy seeds are the seeds of Papaver rhoeas and have a high, flavourful oil content. They have a pleasant nut-like flavour. They are very widely used in Jewish cookery and throughout central Europe in baking, on bread, rolls, muffins, and cake. Holland blue poppy seed is the most famous poppy of all, with "A-1" being the top grade seed. A smoky blue-grey seed with an unparalleled flavour and sweetness, it is prized by everyone who has ever baked or just eaten a stollen. White poppy seeds are used in Indian cooking adding thickness, texture and flavour to sauces. Less sweet than blue poppy, they are added to lentil and rice dishes.

Rosemary

Rosemary is a small, evergreen shrub, Rosmarinus officinalis. Native to the Mediterranean, it was introduced to Britain by the Romans and then later reintroduced into this country after the Dark Ages by Philippa Queen of Hainault. Rosemary has pretty white flowers and the plant has a strong and distinctive aroma. Its leaves are small and narrow and look like pine needles. When dried, they are a fragrant seasoning herb - the leaves of the shrub must be dried as soon as possible after harvest. They are pale green in colour with a clean bitter-sweet flavour.

The savoury, almost minty sweetness of rosemary makes it perfect for pork and lamb, from grilled chops to large roasts. But don't stop there, rosemary adds wonderful flavour to almost everything. Try rosemary on chicken and fish: just crumble on with garlic, pepper, and salt before baking. Rosemary is often used with oregano and thyme in Italian dishes: add ¼ tsp per 225ml of spaghetti sauce, mix into the dough for breadsticks or bread machine loaves, 1 tsp per loaf, or throw 1 tsp in chicken or tomato soup.

Saffron

Saffron is the dried stigma of the tall-flowering, lilac-cloured crocus, Crocus sativus. Peek inside nearly any flower, and you will see these thread-like filaments. These are stigma, but only in the saffron crocus are these stigma worth thousands of pounds per kilo. It takes 85,000 flowers to make 500g of dried stigma and it's all picked by hand. Saffron is so valuable because it is very labour intensive crop, and only 2½ - 3½ kilos of saffron can be produced from each acre of land. This makes saffron the most expensive spice by weight (it always has been and probably always will be).

But by use saffron isn't that expensive, because a little goes a long way - saffron has a strong, penetrating smell with a warm bitterish taste, which used properly creates a sumptuous rice, soup or sauce but overuse can turn the same dish into something quite repellent (as well as very expensive). A single gram of saffron easily translates into golden colour and fragrant flavour for 10 meals of saffron rice for four, several batches of bread, or a couple of big pots of paella. As guidance, the Italians pour a coffee cupful of hot water over a few filaments, leave it to take on a deep, bright orange with an unmistakeable smell and then add this to 500g of cooked rice - perfection!

Sage

A hardy evergreen shrub, Salvia officinalis, is a hardy medium-sized shrub and the entire plant is fragrant. It has greyish-green oblong leaves and herbal sage is prepared from these leaves. Sage is a strong aromatic herb that is warm and has a slight bitter afternote with a hint of camphor. Commercial crops come principally from the Dalmatian coast area, from Italy and the UK. To harvest sage, the grower cuts off the top 20cm or so of growth before the flavour appears, and the dried leaves are the separated from the stems before further processing.

Sage has one of the richest and most distinctive flavours of all the herbs. Perfect for a simple baked chicken or pork, sprinkle with lemon juice or salt, sage and pepper. Sage is traditionally used for poultry stuffing (sage and onion stuffing is a British tradition) and breakfast sausages, but its rich strength lends itself well to many dishes, such as beef roasts, pork chops and game dishes like venison, duck and goose. Sage has become much more popular in recent years, as it is excellent in a great variety of dishes. Try adding it to flavour salt-free dishes, sprinkle on turkey breasts or add to soups and sauces. Leftover turkey or chicken can be pepped up with a bit of rubbed sage.

Salt

'Forget not the salt' writes Elizabeth de Grey, Countess of Kent, in her cookbook of 1653. There seems little to add to the Countess of Kent's reminder that we cannot ignore our need for salt - even though we have at our command all the spices from Malabar to Trebizond and every herb from Mexico to South Africa and now that we are told low-sodium diets are key to good health. In Britain and most of Europe, we mainly use salt mined from the rocks or from the salt springs such as those in Cheshire.

Nowadays, it is refined - bleached to change its colour from yellow to white and made free-running through anti-caking agents such as magnesium carbonate or sodium aluminosilicate. If like us, you feel that our daily food is already quite sufficiently unnatural without our salt being tampered with, you should try our sea salts. Before the commercialisation of the British salt industry, the best sea salt came from Portugal. In the Algarve, there is still a tradition of salt harvesting - not as well known as that of Brittany, perhaps, but we feel it produces whiter crystals and a mellower flavour with a wonderful bouquet of trace elements lacking in normal sea salt.

In the Algarve, traditional hand-harvested sea salt is produced in salinas (salt marshes and salt-pans). After being submerged all winter, the traditional salina is reborn in April after all the pans have been cleaned of their mud deposit. After cleaning, the crystalliser pans are filled with concentrated seawater, previously partially evaporated in the larger salina evaporators. The water goes in at a concentration of 150g of salts/ litre and so containing almost all the trace sea water minerals. In mid-May, the water in the pans has risen to 250g of salts/ litre and real sea salt starts to crystallise. As soon as this starts, the salt-pans are refilled with seawater at 150g of salts/ litre. The addition to the pans is continuous and matches the accumulation of real sea salt at the bottom of the pan.

In June, the salt-pans are ready for the first harvesting. It is done with real care to avoid the mixing of the bottom clay with the salt and so preventing it becoming grey; traditional sea salt from Brittany has a grey colour from the clay deposits. After harvesting by hand, our traditional sea salt is sun dried for a minimum of 5 days to remove the remaining water, so maximising the magnesium and iodine content.

Our Fleur de Sel, which is a unique gourmet product favoured in France, is collected from the surface of the pan like cream from milk. It is harvested the day it crystallizes on the surface of the water. Daily, the thin layer of salt that covers the water is gently harvested and sun dried. It has a trace element bouquet that naturally highlights food flavours and crumbles easily between the fingers.

Sesame seeds

Sesame was one of the earliest plants used by man for the oil as well as the seed. Sesamum indicum has been cultivated in India since at least 1600 BC. From there it cam to Europe via Egypt and its value both medicinally and for cooking gradually spread throughout Europe. Sesame has a pleasant nutty flavour that comes out strongly when toasted. For toasted sesame seeds, place on a baking tray and roast in 180ºC oven for 5 - 10 minutes. Both white and black sesame seeds add a nice flavour and texture to baked chicken or fish, salads, Asian and Indian dishes. White Sesame Seeds: common in Europe for sprinkling on top of breads and rolls. Black Sesame Seeds: in China, meat and fish are rolled in the black seeds before cooking for a crunchy coating; in Japan, black sesame is used in rice and noodle dishes and as a tabletop condiment.

Star anise

While star anise differs botanically from anise, being an evergreen shrub rather than an annual herb. However, their fruits taste remarkably similar and can be used in much the same way. Chinese star anise comes from the shrub, Illicum verum, and is one of the most beautiful and fragrant spices in the world. The tree has white bark much like a birch and a mass of little yellow flowers. The perfect 8 - 12 pointed stars come from the fruits, boasting a much stronger, sweeter and denser liquorice flavour than the more common Spanish anise seeds. Make sure to cut back by ½ if you are substituting star anise for seed anise, as it is more potent.

Star anise is a typical ingredient in Chinese cooking in both meat and poultry dishes. For something different, you could make an infusion of star anise which will soothe a sore throat - pour boiling water over a teaspoon of star anise, then cool and drink.

Sumac

Infuse your vegetable soup with the scent of Middle Eastern spice markets. Brick-red powdered sumac bursts like lemon on your tongue. Sprinkle over grilled lamb, flatbread, roast chicken, garlicky yoghurt sauce. Perk up a vinaigrette for baby greens or a coleslaw dressing. Deliciously tart.

Sichuan peppercorns

From China, Sichuan pepper comes from the dried berries from a deciduous prickly ash tree. The 3 - 4mm berry has a tough reddish brown shell that is split open to find a black seed inside. The black seed is bitter and can be discarded. The red shell can be added whole to stews or ground to a powder as a seasoning. The spice has a unique flavour that is not as pungent as black pepper and has slight lemony overtones.

Tarragon

There are two types of tarragon - French and Russian, Artemisia dracunculus and A. dracunculoides. Because it is more savoury with a light anise-like flavour, French tarragon is more highly sought. Oddly enough both French and Russian tarragon are said to have originated in Siberia reaching Europe in the Middle Ages. Tarragon is an important cooking herb - it has a sweet and slightly bitter flavour with a hidden tang if overused. It is the most popular French herb, where its rich, robust flavour combines especially well with the wine and shallot base of many French dishes - it is an essential ingredient of the sauces Béarnaise and Hollandaise.

Tarragon is also a strong-flavoured herb; start with a small amount on simple baked chicken or fish, in tuna or chicken salad, oil & vinegar dressing for salads and marinades. French tarragon has the strongest and sweetest flavour; it is the definitive tarragon, perfect for all uses. Tarragon is part of the fines herbes mix (along with chives and parsley). The leaves of this herb are used in classic French sauces, egg dishes, flavoured butters and creamed cheeses, soups and in poultry dishes. A popular use is in Tarragon Vinegar, made by adding a sprig of tarragon to a sterile bottle and covering with boiling white wine vinegar.

Thyme

There are over 100 species of thyme developed from the wild thyme, Thymus serpyllum or the so-called "mother of thyme". The pungent grey leafed garden thyme is well known in herbaceous gardens as a decorative border. Thyme has long been associated with courage - Roman soldiers bathed in water infused with thyme, while in the Middle Ages, English ladies embroidered sprigs of thyme to the tokens they gave their knights-errant. Originally a native of the Mediterranean countr,ies thyme is now grown commercially in France, Europe and the USA. Thyme has a warm aromatic and slightly sharp flavour. It contains strong volatile oils which is why it is used in antiseptics and germicides.

Thyme is truly one of the best cooking herbs in the world. Thyme has a vibrant flavour with a special affinity for poultry and pork (especially sausages) - it is an absolute must for fried chicken and breaded chops and is just as good for baking and broiling. Rub on chicken or fish for the grill with garlic and pepper. Add to split pea soup with ham, or mix with rosemary, garlic and pepper for a great roast or fish fry.

Turmeric

A root or rhizome of Curcuma longa from the ginger family. Turmeric yields the yellow spice powder that gives curry powders their characteristic colour and a small part of their aroma. A mild, warm and attractive spice with a slightly peppery taste, turmeric is much loved in Indian and Moroccan cooking. Turmeric is a perennial from the tropics. Large thin leaves grow from the base of the plant and it has yellowish-white flowers. The underground rhizomes are short, thick and greyish outside and brownish-yellow on the inside. Turmeric is cultivated in South East Asia, Jamaica, India, Haiti and Peru. What makes mustard yellow? It isn't the mustard seed, it's the turmeric. Our powdered Indian turmeric has a very intense, bright yellow-orange colour. Use only ½ of what a recipe calls for in pickles, mustard or Indian cooking.

Vanilla

Vanilla beans are cigar-shaped seed-pods of the fragrant climbing orchids native to Mexico called Vanilla planifolia, deriving from the Spanish for pod, vaina, and planifolia indicating flat leaves. The plant and its products are said to have known to the Aztecs and used by them as flavouring for chocolate. It is odd, therefore, that when the Spaniards took chocolate, or rather cocoa beans, to Spain in the sixteenth century they appear not to have known about vanilla, as (until the eighteenth century) and later cinnamon was the main flavouring for both drinking chocolate and as a sweet.

The phrase bourbon vanilla for the best vanilla comes from the nineteenth century French sugar growers of the island of union or Bourbon, who made the cultivation of vanilla a secondary industry; scarcely a sugar estate in 1890 has not more or less land under vanilla and the occupants of almost every hut cover their yards, courts and plots with vanilla creepers. To this colonial enterprise is due the popularity of vanilla in France and the label vanille Bourbon, recalling les Îles Bourbon.

Beans are carefully cut from the vine while green, and cured by sweating under blankets, giving them their characteristic black colour and distinctive, fragrant flavour. Superior beans, such as those from Madagascar and Mexico, are handled carefully and cured to a consistency that is neither too moist nor too dry. The best vanilla beans are grown to 15cm - 20cm. Smaller beans do not have as nice a flavour and bring in a lower price. Longer beans demand a higher price, but farmers take the risk that a tropical storm will damage their crop, or fear that their beans will be stolen during the night as he and his family sleep in their nearby hut. Though theft is virtually nonexistent by Western standards, vanilla beans command quite a sum of money even before drying. It is common for each small family plot to have its own smart dog to patrol the perimeter and bark wildly at any stranger foolish enough to trespass at night, waking everyone within earshot.

Vanilla beans are used for baking and dessert-making throughout most of the world. A bit more time-consuming to use than extract, vanilla beans impart the strongest true vanilla flavour without the alcohol of extract. Madagascar vanilla beans set the standard of excellence and are the vanilla beans of choice for most cooks. Many people believe Mexican vanilla beans are equally fine, with a robust, dark vanilla flavour that is perfect for rich baked goods. Using vanilla beans in cooking allows you to vary the flavour in your baking and dessert-making by using different types of vanilla beans for different dishes; the flavour will always be wonderful.



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