2013-12-12 / From The Garden

Herbs and Spices Highlight the Holidays

By Cynthia Gibson


Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. There is something about the Proustian reminiscences of spices and herbs, particularly at Christmas. From the taste of the season’s first peppermint candy cane to mince pies in the oven, the fragrances of herbs and spices are in the air for weeks during the holidays. The strong seasonal scents of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger stay with us forever.

The ubiquitous candy cane is the product of an interesting evolution. A choirmaster in Cologne, Germany had the candy sticks made and passed them out to children in the church during the holidays to keep them quiet. Candy has always been and will always be the all-time perfect pacifier. The sweet grew into the candy cane, but not exactly as we know it today. During the 17th century trees and swags of pine boughs were decorated during Yuletide, but the trees were not brought into the house until the 19th century. Decorations were simple but beautiful and were comprised of hard gingerbread cookies and sticks of hard, candied sugar. Confectioners in the 1700s finally put a crook into the candy sticks so that they could be hung on boughs and swags. Swags were draped over mantels, along staircase rails and around doors. The candy canes were flavored with peppermint or spearmint extracts and were white. Sugar, always at a premium, would only command a higher price if laced with a fragrance. Rose water and orange water were often used, but the pungency of peppermint did the trick for creating an all-time favorite Christmas candy that became a symbol for a shepherd’s crook. It did not gain its red stripe until the early 1900s. Candy canes were all handmade until the mid-1950s, when a machine was invented to pop out candy canes at an astonishing rate, stripe and all.

Making your own candy canes is a bit time consuming but well worth the effort. Yes, you can readily purchase a box of canes at the pharmacy or supermarket, but the indelicate, imperfect, and rather clumsy look of a homemade candy cane has a charm of its own. This is not a project for children, as boiling hot sugar is involved and gloves are required.

The Spice Islands, in particular the Moluccas Islands in Indonesia, are where the luxurious spices of nutmeg, mace, and cloves originated. It is hard to imagine, but these spices reached Europe and then the Americas in the 1700s through trade with the Dutch, who ruled the trade of these islands for years.

How astounding and exotic it must have been for Colonists in Newport to trade and purchase aromatic spices from across the globe. The spices were prohibitively expensive at the time, and in comparison to the price of herbs, they are still expensive. Nutmeg, cloves, and mace rank right up there with saffron.

Cinnamon sticks are another staple of the Christmas season. Placing the sticks in punch, mulled wine, or cider makes for a lovely and flavorful holiday cup. Squash pies, with all of the added spices of cloves, ginger, and nutmeg, are now an annual holiday tradition. Again, we travel to distant countries for these incredible spices. Cinnamon is primarily grown in Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon. It is true that wars were fought over this spice, but now we can purchase bags of pinecones drowned in its fragrance. What is holiday mincemeat pie without cinnamon or nutmeg? Did someone mention fruitcake? That gateau is of course teeming with exotic holiday spices.

When making your holiday mincemeat pies, make them the size of three-bite tarts instead of massive pies that really take a particular taste to enjoy. The finest pies have an added holiday nip of rum and brandy. Here’s to the holidays! Spice it up.

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