December was the Month of the Gourmand, and as the festive season saw cakes, puddings, yule logs and cookies dashed across tables worldwide, it only seemed appropriate to write up about that ever popular ‘Christmas Spice’. Essentially, Christmas Spice is a very basic mix of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace and allspice. Love them or hate them, use it only for baking once a year or for savoury dishes all year round, you can’t deny that they make our food olfactory feasts.

 

 

Cloves

Cloves are the dried buds of flowers from the tropical tree, Eugenia Caryophyilus, or Aromatica, from the Myrtacea family, and native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. Today the buds are harvested in Indonesia, India, Madagascar, Zanzibar, Pakistan, Sri-Lanka and Tanzania. The plant itself grows near coasts, grows to 8-12cm in height, and it’s petals are in fact yellow, though this is hardly seen as it is picked when still a bud, and still a pale pink. During their natural harvest, the buds turn bright red.

Early trade between India and China, as well as Arab traders introducing it to the Spice Route, saw their heavy use in cooking and scents. During the reign of Emperor Constantine, and the period when the Pope’s seat was Byzantine, a gift of 150 pounds (45k) of cloves were offered to Pope Sylvester from Constantine. The sheer expense of such a gift, let alone the now humble spice, has seen it grow in popularity around the world for centuries. Clove oil is sourced when gentle pressure is applied onto the bud. In that sense, steer clear of powdered cloves as they have lost their oil and don’t hold onto their rich aromatic smell.

 

Smells like…

Malmaison by Floris
Poivre by Caron
Orlando by Jardins d’Ecrivains
Je Suis un Homme (Imperial Testosterone) by Etat Libre D’Orange

Vanilla

Native to Central America, Vanilla is the fruit of a climbing tropical orchid, with pale green-white flowers- which are (would you believe it) scentless. The pods usually grow between 10-15cm long, and due to a thin film separating the pods form the flower, they must be artificially pollinated in commercial cultivation. In their native home, they were fertilized- and still are- by the Meliponinae bees, also known as stingless bees.

Vanilla is one of the world’s most famous natural sweetener, and  has long been the ancient ingredient used to add flavour to cocoa beans by Aztecs. Natural ripening saw the pods fall to ground floor once ripe, and when concealed by the earth’s humus layer, lay to ferment giving off their unmistakable aroma. Artificial ripening sees the pods picked when they are barely ripe, plunged into boiling water, and later exposed to the sun to dry with a protective cover over them. A natural fluid seeps out of them, ferments, turns very dark in colour, once dried it forms vanillin crystals.

Vanillin is the natural compound responsible for the flavour and smell of vanilla. Because vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron, synthetic vanillin crowds the perfume industry. As it is a fermented quantity it is naturally boozey, but has honeyed tones that – when not sanitized and striped clean- are utterly indecent on skin. At best, vanilla is seductive, at worst it is candyfloss sweet.

It was successfully cultivated by the Aztecs, who were famed for their botany, gardening and perfume, called vanilla tlilxochitl. Growing across Latin America- Venezuela, Colombia and Guiana, the Spanish were the next to try their hand at cultivating them. Unsuccessful at first, it wasn’t until the realisation that the plant was fertilized by the Meliponinae bees- whose honey was used to sweeten vanilla-flavoured cocoa, that the system of artificial fertilization was perfected. Until then, cultivated crops outside of vanilla’s natural habitat grew unfertilized and remained sterile. Today, three-quarters of all consumed vanilla comes from Madagascar, and most vanilla grown in Mexico is sold in North America, while Europe sources its vanilla from Tahiti and other islands in the Indian Ocean.

Today there are countless types of vanilla, and their smell- oh their smell- can be so intoxicating in large quantities that it can have narcotic effects on those handling it. This is known as vanillism, and for those unfortunate enough to suffer from it, experience headaches, allergic skin reactions (caused by mites acarus siro) and malaise.

 

Smells like…

Shalimar by Guerlain
Dulcis in Fundo by Profumum Roma
7 Billion Hearts by CB I Hate Perfume
Mirra by I Profumi di Firenze
Loriani by Testa Maura

 

 

Cinnamon

Cinnamomum verum or zeylanicum, are both the latin names for the evergreen tree, cinnamon, from the Lauraceae family. There are several different types of cinnamon, with the main species being:

true cinnamon/ cinnamon verum, is nativeto Sri Lanka, where roughly 80-90% of the world’s true cinnamon is produced.

Cinnamomum tamala (also known as Malabathrum or Malobathrum) from Northern India. Also refered to as the Indian Bay Leaf, their leaves are commonly used in Asian cuisine, and have strong medicinal purposes. The bark of the tree is less commonly used as a spice.

Cinnamomum cassia  (also known as serichatum) from China, which is darker in colour with a rougher texture, is often sold as true cinnamon.

 

Because cinnamon was such a sought after spice, early traders along the spice route kept its location secret. Thankfully we’re not in the dark ages, and we now know that it is native to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, The Malabar Coast of India & Burma. The name itself, cinnamon, derives from the Greek κιννάμωμον (kinnámōmon), taken from the Phoenician qinnamon. Cinnamon that we know and love as a spice, is actually the bark of the tree. Because of the way it curls when dried, it gained the name canel, from the Latin world canella, the diminutive of canna, meaning tube.

Cinnamon essence has a high phenol content, which aside from being used for food flavouring and in cosmetics, is a strong bactericide and has always held medicinal value. The essence is obtained from distilling the bark, and was commercialised as a by-product of unsalable produce. The aromatic oil used in perfumery only makes between 0.5-1% of the barks overall composition, and given that it takes  eight years for the tree to grow large enough to be harvested, the process is relatively slow. The oil is collected by distilling the bark, however before this can be processed, the bark must first be pounded and macerated in sea water. The smell itself comes from cinnamic aldehyde or cinnamaldehyde, of which 90% is found in the bark. When exposed to oxygen, it darkens in colour and forms resinous compounds.

Smell like…

Musc Ravageur by Frederic Malle
Anima Dulcis by Arquiste
Opium by Yves Saint Laurent
Tabac Rouge by Phaedon

 

 

 

Nutmeg & Mace

Myristica fragrans, from the Myristicaceae family, or as we know it, nutmeg, is the only plant from the Spice Islands of Indonesia (Banda Islands to be exact) to produce two different spices from the same fruit.

Firstly, there is nutmeg- the nut of the fruit, and then there is mace, the bright red flesh that coats the seed. Understandably, they smell different- mace being the more pungent flavour and aroma.  When processed, both components are separated, dried and kept airtight due to their volatile essential oils. The fruits from which they are obtained are cultivated several times a year, so the spices are in continuous production.  Whereas the nutmeg nuts are grated, the dried mace is flattened and then broken into smaller pieces. Both spices can be bought in powdered forms, however like cloves, their oils are locked in their body and lost once powdered.

Until the 19thCentury, both spices were only sourced from the Banda Islands. Today the trees are grown around the world in tropical climates- Sumatra, Java, Bengal, the West Indies, Columbia, Central America, Brazil as well as Madagascar.  As dioecious plants, their productivity is reduced by 50% as only the female trees produce the nutmeg fruits. Over the centuries different pollination methods were created to change this- French botanist Pierre Poivre (1719-1786) tried to graft male branches onto the female tree, then there was the technique where a single male tree was placed amongst a harem of female trees (which relies on cross wind pollination). Air-layering is also used, however is the least favourable technique due to its low success rate. The tree itself is only fully productive after twenty years, with its first harvest occurring between seven to nine years. The average tree lives to around 100 years, and produces an average of 20,000 nutmegs every year, and has small yellow flowers with highly fragrant leaves. The essential oil obtained comes from the nutmeg nut via steam distillation.

 

Smells like…

Majalis by Les Parfums de Rosine
L’Enfant Terrible by Jovoy
Nutmeg & Ginger by Jo Malone
Eccelso by Profumum Roma

 

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