Exploring Vanilla in the Rainforest and in the Kitchen: Part I

By Susan Belsinger

(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)

Vanilla in the Rainforest

P1110204Before going to Costa Rica, I researched gardens, restaurants, herbs, spices, botanicals and the rainforest—places where I wanted to go, see, and experience. Once I visited Villa Vanilla’s website, https://www.rainforestspices.com/, I knew that I had to go there. I made reservations for the farm tour in advance. It was one of my favorite things in Costa Rica—I loved seeing the tropical spice plants up close and personal—and I got to smell and taste so many things, which was a memorable sensory experience! 

During the half day Spice Plantation Tour, visitors experience the sights, tastes, and aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, and other tropical spices, essential oil plants, and a wide variety of tropical ornamental P1110256plants. The tour begins and ends at the post-harvest warehouse, where my eyes feasted on the spectacle of the ground covered with burlap sacks, which were spread with vanilla beans in various stages of fermentation and curing, and my nose filled with the delightfully overwhelming perfume of vanilla.

Vanilla is the main crop that is cultivated on this farm, with Ceylon cinnamon as a secondary crop. However, they also cultivate cacao, pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, chiles, turmeric, cardamom, ginger (mostly ornamental), and a large number of epiphytes. 

On our tour, we sampled delicious treats made by the chef, who used the farm’s spices to titillate our taste buds. To cool off, we first had a glass of chilled hibiscus infusion while gazing out at the tropical paradise. The next sample was a lovely, smooth vanilla bean custard, not too sweet, with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. We were served a demitasse of hot chocolate flavored with a hint of cinnamon and chile accompanied by a crunchy, vanilla shortbread P1070032cookie speckled with cacao nibs. And the grand finale was a scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream made with farm fresh milk and cream from the farm’s own dairy cow. 

After visiting the Spice Shoppe, we walked back to the small warehouse where we were able to view different spices in various stages of drying. Our guide described and showed us some of the processes of harvesting and processing both vanilla and cacao pods, and we saw Ceylon cinnamon being barked. 

We learned about the process of the vanilla bean from harvest to cured, saleable bean. Once the plant has produced the green pods, they swell as they mature. When they are ready to harvest, they pull off easily from P1110195the stem. Green pods are placed in a large, clear plastic bag, which begins the fermentation process. Then they are laid outdoors in the sun every morning for four hours. Next, they are placed in insulated boxes while they are still warm from the sun and brought inside the warehouse for twenty hours. This is repeated every day for about three to four days. This process of sweating the beans in the sun makes a superior fermented end-product. (In other parts of the world, green beans are dropped in boiling water rather than curing in the sun.) After a week, the pods have turned brown, and they are removed from the plastic bags and spread out on burlap sacks. The four hours of sun/twenty hours in the dark process is continued for another three to four weeks until the pods have begun P1110187to shrivel and have lost about 80% of their original weight. Then they are left to cure—and this time varies among farmers—from nine months to two years. Villa Vanilla cures their beans for two years for best flavor and quality.

After curing, the beans are graded and separated according to size—there are about four sizes from thin to medium to large and extra-large. An extra-large bean is something to behold indeed! They are magnificent, thick and plump and slightly moist, bursting with the mouthwatering and intoxicating, inimitable scent of vanilla. 

Vanilla’s Aromatic Pedigree

The vanilla plant is a tropical vine that can reach a length of over one hundred feet. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest groups of flowering plants—the orchids (Orchidaceae)—currently known to contain more than twenty-five thousand species and counting. Of all the orchids, the Vanilla genus is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop separate from the rare, hothouse exotic orchids cultivated and traded for their beautiful, colorful flowers. The vanilla orchid has its own appeal: a fruit with a scent so unique, so distinctive to the human palate that it was once worth its weight in silver.

vanilla-flower-542019_1920The vanilla orchid’s flower is not showy; it has only a slight scent with no element of vanilla flavor or aroma. When its pale-yellow flowers are pollinated, the ovaries swell and develop into the fruits we call “pods” or “beans,” just like extra-long green beans. Pollination in the wild is very iffy, so most growers hand pollinate to ensure a viable crop. This is very labor intensive and has to be done when the flower is just open, which is a very brief window of time–literally a few hours on a single day. Each pod contains tens of thousands of tiny black seeds. The growing process lasts up to nine months, but only when the pods turn brown after being dried and cured do they develop the distinctive aroma we call “vanilla.” Drying, curing, and conditioning the pods is an art, which, if done properly, takes at least another nine months. Understandably, vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive agricultural products in the world. 

P1070023There are more than a hundred different species of vanilla orchid, and they grow all over the tropics with the exception of Australia. All of the vanilla orchids produce fruits containing seeds, but only a few species bear the large aromatic pods that can be used commercially. Virtually all of the cultivated vanilla in the world today comes from just one species, Vanilla planifolia (sometimes called Vanilla fragrans), a plant indigenous to Central America, and particularly the south-eastern part of Mexico. At least two other species, V. pompona and V. tahitensis, also provide a serviceable culinary pod, although they are not as readily obtainable, and they produce a different flavor and aroma to the V. planifolia

Stay tuned for Vanilla Part II, including recipes from Susan, coming 8 March, 2021!

Photo Credits: 1) Villa Vanilla poster; 2) Drying vanilla beans on burlap sacks; 3) Vanilla custard; 4) Green, unripe vanilla pods; 5) Dried vanilla pods; 6) Vanilla flowers; 7) Vanilla vine. All photos courtesy of the author, except 6) (Pixaby).


1-Susan Belsinger

Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com

Christmas Herbs of Trinidad, Part II

By Amy Forsberg

Trinidad_tobago-esLast week we looked at some of the beverages important to a Trinidad Christmas. Now let’s talk about some of the foods and the special ingredients needed to make them.

So what is on the menu in Trinidad for Christmas? Here is what Ann told me. “Dinner is ham, of course, pastelles, baked chicken, fried rice, pelau, callaloo, macaroni pie…and everybody makes homemade bread. And, of course, sorrel drink and ponché de crème. And you have to have black cake, of course….Everything is homemade, nobody buys anything.” 

Pastelles are the West Indian version of tamales and reflect the Mexican/Aztec heritage in the Caribbean. Making pastelles can be labor intensive, and according to Ann, many families make the work fun by turning it pastelles on leafinto a party and making large quantities assembly-line style. This is part of what makes them such a Christmas treat. Every island has their own version, and in Trinidad, it is traditionally cornmeal stuffed with beef, chicken, or pork (or a mixture) with olives, capers, and raisins and steamed in banana leaves. There are also versions made with fish or shrimp, and vegetarian versions made with soy products, lentils, or mushrooms. It is the flavorings that really make them special, and the usual additions include onion, garlic, tomato paste or ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Trinidad pimento peppers, and roucou.

Pimento peppers are ubiquitous in Trinidad cooking, but they are NOT the same pepper we call pimento here in the United States; they do not look or taste the same other than both being non-spicy. They are a completely Trinidad Pimento Peppers Seedwisemild Capsicum chinense (the species known for blazing hot peppers like habaneros) and are easily found in most Caribbean markets here in the U.S., as well as most backyards in Trinidad, according to Ann. The taste is described as the flavor of very hot peppers without any of the heat, and they are an essential ingredient in many dishes. This pepper seems relatively unknown outside of Caribbean circles, but you may find seeds marketed as Capsicum ‘Trinidad Pimento’ or ‘Trinidad Seasoning Pepper.’ 

Roucou (pronounced roo’-koo) refers to the fruit of Bixa orellano, a shrub or small tree native to Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America and is cultivated in many countries. It is more widely known by the common names annatto and achiote and is used as red/orange dye and food coloring and flavoring. The rou coucolor comes from the waxy coating that covers the seeds. In Trinidad, it is common to grow roucou in your yard. The spiky capsules are harvested when ripe, split open, and the seeds are removed. The seeds are placed in water, then soaked and agitated (wear gloves!) to release the coloring. The now vibrant red/orange liquid has salt added as a preservative, the seeds are strained out, and the liquid is refrigerated to use as needed. It is a common ingredient in many dishes in Trinidad and adds not only a beautiful color but a subtle unique flavor as well. Annatto powder may be substituted and is easily purchased online and at International markets.

Another dish commonly eaten at Christmas, and especially at New Year’s (which is called “All Years Night” in Trinidad), is the unofficial Trinidad national dish pelau (pronounced pay-lauor puh-lau’). Pelau is a hearty one-pot meal of chicken, rice, and pigeon peas flavored with onion, garlic, Trinidad pimento peppers, and a delicious flavor concoction called green seasoning. 

What is green seasoning, you ask? If you looked inside many refrigerators in Trinidad, you would find a fresh batch of this green herbal magic. There is no set recipe, and it can be simply made with whichever ingredients are on hand. It can also be purchased bottled, but fresh is far superior. Ann says it generally includes garlic, Trinidad pimento peppers, chives, cilantro, celery, green onions, thyme, chadon beni, and pudina.  

Eryngium foetidum1 20050729 CU 65949HChadon beni (pronounced “shadow benny”) is the common name for the leaves of Eryngium foetidum, a tropical perennial in the carrot family (Apiaceae) and known in the United States as culantro. Imported by French settlers, the name derives from “chardon béni,” which means “blessed thistle.” (It is not actually a thistle but looks a bit like one.) According to Ann, it grows like a weed everywhere in Trinidad and is easy to cultivate. The flavor is similar to cilantro but even stronger and more pungent. It is one of several herbs that are an essential component of the flavor of Trinidadian cuisine. The fresh leaves can usually be found in Caribbean markets.

Pudina is the local name for Plectranthus amboinicus (syn. Coleus amboinicus), a fleshy-leaved perennial in the mint family that is known by many common names: Mexican mint, SpanishPlectranthus amboinicus thyme, Indian borage, Cuban oregano, and many more. It is naturalized and cultivated widely in the tropics and as an herb. It has a strong oregano-like flavor.

For dessert, they have black cake, a dense, rich, and alcohol soaked fruitcake believed to have descended from British desserts such as plum pudding. It is quite different from American fruitcake. It is made with lots of butter, eggs, and rum, and is almost black in color due to the addition of “browning,” which is made by almost burning brown sugar syrup. Browning can be purchased, or in a pinch, molasses can be substituted. Black cake is one of those foods for which every family has their own closely guarded recipe with a slightly different ratio of spices and fruits. Most recipes I found online direct you to soak the dried fruits in alcohol for at least a few days or weeks. But according to Ann, it is an important tradition to soak them for an entire year! Just after Black CakeChristmas, you prepare the fruits and cover them in a jar with a blend of alcohols and leave it in a dark place for a year, shaking periodically. Spices are also essential to making the quintessential black cake, which typically include cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, clove, and tonka bean. 

Tonka bean is the seed of Dipteryx odorata, a tropical tree in the pea family (Fabaceae) that has a complex and highly prized flavor said to remind one of a blend of vanilla, cherry, almond, cinnamon, caramel, and honey. Tonka beansBecause it contains coumarin, a chemical that is toxic in larger amounts, tonka bean has been banned as a food ingredient in the U.S. since 1953. It is now better understood that the concentration of coumarin in tonka bean is too low to cause illness without one consuming a nearly impossible quantity. However, the ban remains. 

So, now you can set your table with a feast including ham, pastelles, pelau, and black cake. And to drink you’ll have sorrel drink, ponche de crème, and ginger beer. The house is freshly painted and new curtains have been hung. Neighbors and family will be dropping by soon. Panang music will fill the air, and the rum will flow. Merry Christmas from Trinidad!

Ann AbdulRecipes

Recipes from Ann Abdul and/or adapted from “The Multi-Cultural Cuisine of Trinidad & Tobago & the Caribbean” which is the 2002 updated version of “Naparima Girls’ High School Diamond Jubilee 1912-1987, Trinidad & Tobago Recipes”. These are the quintessential books on Trinidadian cuisine found in almost every home.

 

Pastelles

Makes approx. 24 

  • 2 lb. boneless beef, chicken or pork, diced 
  • 3-4 TBSP roucou liquid
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion
  • ½ cup finely chopped chive
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • hot pepper to taste
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 TBSP vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ cup finely chopped pimentos
  • 3 TBSP capers
  • 2 TBSP stuffed olives, chopped
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 3 cups hot water
  • 2-3 TBSP vegetable oil or 2 oz. or 4 TBSP margarine
  • Soharee or banana leaves, cleaned, greased and cut in 7” or 8” squares

(If using banana leaves, scald until soft and pliable.)

Directions

  1. In a bowl, mix meat with onion, chive, and thyme, garlic, hot pepper, black pepper, and 1 tsp salt.
  2. Heat oil in skillet and add roucou liquid and beef mixture and fry until tender; cool and mince.
  3. Return beef to skillet and add ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, pimentos, capers, olives, and raisins.
  4. Cook for 2-3 minutes more and adjust salt and pepper; leave to cool.
  5. Combine cornmeal, water, oil, and 1 tsp salt; stir until mixture sticks together.
  6. Take heaped tablespoons of cornmeal and form balls (approx. 1½” in diameter).
  7. Place a ball of cornmeal on a piece of leaf, cover with a piece of plastic wrap and roll or press to desired size approx. 6” square. Remove the plastic. 
  8. Place a heaped tablespoon of meat mixture along one side of cornmeal and fold leaf in half, then fold edges of leaf over to seal.
  9. Place a few pastelles in steamer or colander, and steam for about 20-25 minutes.

Pelau 

Serves 8-10

  • 3 lbs. chicken pieces, skinned
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 2 TBSP mixed green seasoning (or as much as half a cup! Depends on your taste. Ann says more is better.)
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 TBSP ketchup
  • 2 TBSP vegetable oil
  • 2-3 TBSP brown sugar
  • 2 cups parboiled rice
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • ½ cup chopped pimento peppers (any mild pepper can be substituted)
  • 1½ cups cooked pigeon peas
  • 1 TBSP salt
  • 1 whole hot pepper with the stem
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 2 cups chicken broth or water

Directions

  1. Season chicken with salt, pepper, green seasoning, minced garlic, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and ketchup.
  2. Heat oil in large heavy iron pot or skillet.
  3. Add sugar and allow to burn until brown
  4. Add seasoned chicken, and stir until pieces are well coated with burnt sugar; brown for 5 minutes.
  5. Add rice, and turn often until well mixed. Cook for 3 minutes more.
  6. Add onion, sweet peppers, and peas, and cook for a few minutes, stirring a few times.
  7. Add salt, hot pepper, coconut milk, and broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer until rice is cooked and all liquid is evaporated (about 25-30 minutes).
  8. Add more liquid if rice is still hard and continue to cook for a few more minutes.

Notes: Pelau could also be baked in the oven. Cover pot with lid or foil and bake at 350 F for 30-35 minutes. 

Green Seasoning (recipe adapted from https://healthiersteps.com)

  • 1 bunch chadon beni leaves (can substitute cilantro)
  • ½ bunch parsley
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 3 green onions/scallions
  • Small bunch of chives
  • 10 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 small onion
  • 1” piece fresh ginger
  • 8 sprigs thyme
  • 3 sprigs pudina (optional, can be found at Caribbean markets)
  • 5 Trinidad pimento peppers (or other mild peppers such as ‘Aji Dulce’, banana, or Cubanelle)

Directions

  1. Roughly chop up all ingredients and add to a food processor.
  2. Process until the mixture looks pureed like baby food, scraping down sides as necessary.
  3. Store in the refrigerator. Use about 2 TBSP of green seasoning per recipe. 

You can also prepare in large batches and freeze in ice cube trays and store cubes in freezer bags. These quantities are merely suggestions. Most people develop their own recipe with their own preferred ratio of ingredients based on personal preference. 

Trinidad Black Cake (Christmas Cake)

Serves 36 (or three cakes)

  • 1 lb. prunes, seeded and chopped
  • 1 lb. raisins
  • 1 lb. currants
  • 1 lb. sultanas
  • ¼ lb. candied mixed citrus peel (e.g., lemon, orange)
  • ½ lb. cherries, chopped in half
  • ¼ lb. chopped almonds
  • 1½ cups cherry brandy
  • 2 cups rum
  • 2 cups butter
  • 2 cups brown sugar  
  • 10 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. grated lime peel
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 4 cups flour
  • 4 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ¼ cup browning (darkly caramelized sugar)
  • 3 cups mixture of rum, cherry brandy, and sherry, 1 cup for each cake

Directions

  1. A few days, or up to one year, before baking the cake, combine prunes, raisins, currants, sultanas, mixed candied peel, cherries, almonds, cherry brandy, and rum in a jar or other suitable glass container. Cover, and leave in a dark place to meld flavors, shaking the container occasionally, until ready to use.
  2. Line three 8” round cake pans with double layers of wax or parchment paper.
  3. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  4. Beat in eggs one at a time; add lime peel and vanilla.
  5. Combine flour, baking powder, and cinnamon; fold into creamed mixture gradually.
  6. Drain soaked fruit and add to mixture. Add enough browning to give desired color; stir well.
  7. Put in lined baking pans ¾ full and bake in a preheated oven at 250 F for one hour; reduce heat to 200 F – 225 F for the remaining 1½ hrs or until tester comes out clean.
  8. Prick hot cakes, and soak each with the mixture of rum, brandy, and sherry.

As alcohol soaks in, pour more and continue to do so for 12 hours.

Photo Credits: 1) Map of Trinidad and Tobago (Wikimedia Commons); 2) Pastelles (Wikipedia); 3) Pimento peppers (Capsicum chinense) (seedwise.com); 4) Roucou (Bixa orellano) (Wikipedia); 5) Chadon beni (Eryngium foetidum) (National Herb Garden); 6) Pudina (Plectranthus amboinicus) (National Herb Garden); 7) Black cake (dishmaps.com); 8) Tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata) (Wikipedia); 9) Ann Abdul (Ann Abdul).


Amy Forsberg is a horticulturist who was the 2000-2001 National Herb Garden intern. She has gardened at the U.S. Botanic Garden (2002-2005) and the U.S. National Arboretum (2006-2018). She has long been fascinated by the history of herbs and spices and their role in creating culture and cuisines.

Christmas Herbs of Trinidad, Part I

By Amy Forsberg

Trinidad_tobago-esI was visiting my mother just a few weeks before Christmas in 2017. She had recently moved to a wonderful small family-run assisted living home. The owner, Ann Abdul, asked me if I’d like to taste some “sorrel drink” she had made for the holiday season. I had no idea what that was. It looked Christmassy–a brilliant ruby red. I took a sip, and the most delicious taste filled my mouth. It was a rich, complex, and unfamiliar burst of flavors. But it tasted like Christmas, too—it was sweet, and I thought I could detect cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. But it also tasted a bit like lemonade with a pronounced citrusy tartness. I loved it, and I had to know more! 

Ann and her family are from Trinidad, and over the next two years, I learned so much from her about Trinidad cuisine and culture. The island nation Trinidad & Tobago has a complex history of colonization, slavery, indentured labor, and immigration from all around the world, which has led to a cuisine and a culture that blends Indian, African, Creole, Amerindian, British, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Middle Eastern ingredients and traditions. It is one of the most diverse cuisines in the world and is full of bold flavors. 

There are certain recipes–food and drink–that are essential for Christmas in Trinidad. Ann says it simply isn’t Christmas without them. Maybe you will want to explore some of them and add them into your own celebrations. First, let’s look at what drinks are important to Christmas in Trinidad.

20171009_171414It turned out that “sorrel” is a name for the calyces of Hibiscus sabdariffa, a plant commonly known as roselle, as well as the beverage that is made from them. If you have ever tasted Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea, then you have tasted sorrel. (This sorrel is not related to the leaves of Rumex acetosa, also known as sorrel, which is used as a salad green and fresh herb.) In the Caribbean, the fleshy calyces are used fresh or dried to make the beverage. They are boiled along with various whole spices, then strained, sweetened, and cooled. It is served cold, with or without rum. The exact recipe varies from family to family, but the spices used would typically include cinnamon stick, bay leaf, cloves, allspice, ginger, star anise, and orange peel. Ann’s recipe calls for cinnamon, bay leaf, clove, and vanilla. In Trinidad, many people grow their own Hibiscus sabdariffa so they can harvest the fresh, but highly perishable, calyces, which ripen around Christmas-time, for making their sorrel. (Fresh sorrel may be hard to locate in some sections of the United States, but packets of dried sorrel are easier to find in the International food sections of stores or through Caribbean/International markets online.) For additional information on Hibiscus sabdariffa, check out the blog’s previous post on roselle.

Angostura bittersAnother essential Trinidadian Christmas drink is one more familiar to most Americans. Ponche de crème is their flavorful take on eggnog. Served straight or spiked with rum, this delicious drink must contain a special Trinidad ingredient: Angostura Bitters. You may be familiar with Angostura Bitters as a cocktail ingredient. It has a history that goes back to the early 19th century and is worthy of a post all its own! It is a concentrated alcoholic herbal concoction said to contain as many as 40 botanical ingredients, the exact recipe of which is rumored to be known by only five living people! It started out as a medicine and made its way into flavoring food and drink. Although the recipe is unknown, it is widely believed to include orange peel, vanilla, cinnamon, anise seeds, juniper berries, cocoa nibs, and the intensely bitter Gentiana lutea, a European alpine wildflower with a long history in medicine and brewing. Just a dash of Angostura Bitters is enough to help flavor most recipes. And in Trinidad, according to Ann, a dash is added to almost everything, particularly fruit juices. 

IMG_20201027_074741_444Lastly, the third beverage essential to Christmas in Trinidad is also enjoyed year-round: ginger beer. Ginger beer is a strongly flavored version of ginger ale that is non-alcoholic. The rhizome of Zingiber officinalis contains volatile oils, such as zingerone and gingerols, that give ginger its characteristic “zing.” Most families in Trinidad, as well as the rest of the Caribbean, make their ginger beer at home from fresh ginger rhizomes, and the resulting ginger beer often has a very strong punch of ginger flavor. It contains other spices such as cinnamon and clove. It is made very strong, and it can be diluted with water or club soda to suit your taste.

Next week: Trinidad Christmas foods!

All recipes from Ann Abdul and/or adapted from “The Multi-Cultural Cuisine of Trinidad & Tobago & the Caribbean” (which is the 2002 updated version of “Naparima Girls’ High School Diamond Jubilee 1912-1987, Trinidad & Tobago Recipes”. These are the quintessential cookbooks on Trinidadian cuisine, found in almost every home, according to Ann.)

Ann’s Sorrel Drink

  • Dried sorrel1 package dried sorrel (Angel brand easily available online or in Caribbean market)
  • 10 cloves
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 8 cups of water

Boil until tender, then cool. 

When cool add:

  • 1-2 cups sugar or to taste (sorrel is extremely tart)
  • ½ cup rum (optional)
  • 1 TBSP vanilla extract

Store in refrigerator and enjoy throughout the season!

Ponche De Crème

  • 6 eggs
  • Peel of one lime
  • 3  15 oz. cans evaporated milk
  • 1½  14 oz. cans sweetened condensed milk (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp Angostura bitters
  • ½ tsp grated nutmeg
  • ½ cup rum or more to taste

Directions:

  1. Beat eggs and lime peel until light and fluffy.
  2. Add evaporated milk.
  3. Sweeten to taste with condensed milk.
  4. Add bitters, nutmeg and rum according to taste.
  5. Remove lime peel.
  6. Serve with crushed ice.

Notes:

You can substitute 1 ½ cups pureed steamed pumpkin for eggs. Consuming raw eggs carries risk of salmonella bacteria illness. Using pasteurized eggs reduces this risk.

Ginger Beer

  • 1 lb. fresh ginger root
  • 8 cups water
  • juice and peel of one lime
  • 4 cups granulated sugar (or to taste)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4-6 cloves

Directions:

  1. Wash, peel, and grate ginger root.
  2. Place in a large bottle with 8 cups of water and juice and peel of one lime.
  3. Leave in the sun for one day. Next day, drain and sweeten with sugar.
  4. Pour into clean bottles and place in the refrigerator. Allow to settle for 2 days.

If too strong, dilute with club soda or water to taste.

Photo credits: 1) Map of Trinidad and Tobago (Wikimedia Commons); 2) Hibiscus sabdariffa (sorrel/roselle) calyces (Michael Rayburn, Rayburn Farms); 3) Angostura Bitters (angosturabitters.com); 4) Zingiber officinale (ginger) rhizomes (Michael Rayburn, Rayburn Farms); 5) Dried sorrel calyces (angelbrand.com).


Amy Forsberg is a horticulturist who was the 2000-2001 National Herb Garden intern. She has gardened at the U.S. Botanic Garden (2002-2005) and the U.S. National Arboretum (2006-2018). She has long been fascinated by the history of herbs and spices and their role in creating culture and cuisines.

Cinnamon – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

Cinnamon is the name for several plant species in the laurel family (Lauraceae). It is a small tropical evergreen tree with aromatic leaves and bark. The spice, cinnamon, is the bark of the tree which has been shaved, rolled, and dried into the familiar tubes called “quills.”  

cinnamon_1 Creative CommonsThe two most common cinnamon species are “true” or Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum). “True” cinnamon is grown in Sri Lanka. Cassia cinnamon is grown in Southeast Asia and is the one found in the spice section of your grocery store. The two cinnamons differ in taste and color, with the “true” cinnamon having a more subtle, delicate flavor and a lighter color. It is also more expensive. The picture is a good illustration of the difference between the two cinnamons. The cinnamon on the left is the coarser cassia cinnamon. The cinnamon on the right is Ceylon cinnamon. Notice how the quills of the Ceylon cinnamon are tightly rolled.

Cassia cinnamon has a higher content of the natural ingredient coumarin. Scientists discovered that coumarin may cause reversible liver damage in susceptible people. This discovery led the European Union in 2011 to limit the amount of coumarin in food to 6.8mg per pound of food (about one teaspoon). This created a furor in Scandinavian countries where the cinnamon bun, which has a high cinnamon content, is a traditional baked good, and cinnamon stars are a popular cookie. Sweden found a way around this restriction by claiming that the cinnamon bun was a traditional food, and therefore, was subject to the higher coumarin limit of 22.7mg per pound of food. The Danish baking industry argued that switching to the “true” or Ceylon cinnamon, with its lower coumarin content, would ruin the taste of their traditional food and make it much more expensive as well. As you may imagine, this issue was very important in a country which celebrates National Cinnamon Bun Day on October 4th, and which looks forward to its daily fika tradition of having coffee along with their famous cinnamon bun. 

cinnamon Maryann ReadalCinnamon was first traded by the Arabs who protected their source of the spice by telling fantastic tales of how wild birds guarded the cinnamon trees. References to cinnamon were found in ancient Chinese botanical medical texts dating back to 2800 BCE. Cinnamon has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. The Egyptians used cinnamon in the embalming process, as a medicine, and as a flavoring for beverages. There are a number of references to cinnamon in the Bible as an ingredient in Moses’ anointing oils (Exodus) and as a token of friendship between lovers and friends (Proverbs), while the Romans burned cinnamon on their funeral pyres. In 65 CE, Nero burned a year’s supply of cinnamon during his second wife’s funeral ─ a wife who he had assassinated. 

In medieval Europe, cinnamon was an indicator of wealth. It was burned as incense, as well as used to preserve meat. During the Bubonic Plague, sponges were soaked with cinnamon and cloves and placed in the sick room. It was also used to cure coughs and indigestion. 

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the demand for cinnamon grew at the same time as traditional trade routes were threatened by unrest in the Arab world. Portuguese sailors began to look for alternate sources of spices, leading to Chrisopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas,  as well as the discovery of the source of cinnamon – Ceylon.  By the time the British East India Company gained control of the spice trade in the 19th century, demand for cinnamon had waned and was replaced by coffee, tea, sugar, and chocolate.

cinnamon tree Creative Commons Magda WojtyraSo where are we today with cinnamon, besides it being a necessary ingredient in our cinnamon buns, cinnamon candies, and apple pie? Several clinical studies have shown that cinnamon does help control fasting blood glucose levels in Type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetic individuals. It has also been found to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. However, the National Institute of Health feels not enough study has been done to make a definitive recommendation for using cinnamon as a treatment. They do recommend that, if using cinnamon as a food supplement or medicine, the lower coumarin Ceylon cinnamon should be used.

Here is hoping you will enjoy many ─ but not too many ─ cinnamony treats this holiday season.

Photo Credits: 1) Quills of cassia cinnamon (left) and Ceylon cinnamon (right) (Creative Commons); 2) Cinnamon bun (Maryann Readal); 3) Cinnamon tree (Creative Commons, Magda Wojtyra).

References

Aubrey, Allison. Cinnamon can help lower blood sugar, but one variety may be best.  https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/12/30/255778250/cinnamon-can-help-lower-blood-sugar-but-one-variety-may-be-best.  Accessed 11/18/20.

Bundesinstitut fur Risikobewerlung (BfR). FAQ on coumarin in cinnamon and other foods.  https://www.bfr.bund.de/en/faq_on_coumarin_in_cinnamon_and_other_foods-8487.html.  Accessed 11/18/20

National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health. Ciinnamon. May 2020. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/cinnamon. Accessed 11/20/2020.

Osborne, Troy David. A taste of paradise: cinnamon. https://www.lib.umn.edu/bell/tradeproducts/cinnamon. Accessed 11/11/20.  

Ting Lu. Cinnamon extract improves fasting blood glucose and glycosylated hemoglobin level in Chinese patients with type 2 diabetes. Nutrition Research.  June 2012. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22749176/  Accessed 11/17/20.

The Guardian. Cinnamon sparks spicy debate between Danish bakers and food authorities. December 20, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/20/cinnamon-intake-food-argument-denmark  Accessed 11/11/20.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Botanical Brews – An introductory guide to using tropical specialty ingredients in beer

By Amanda Dix

(Blogmasters’ note: Experiencing craft beer is a high point for many connoisseurs these days. While beer in its various forms has been around for millennia, today’s brew-masters have taken beer to a whole new level by adding unique flavor combinations to their recipes. Capitalizing on that trend, many gardens and arboreta are incorporating special tasting events into their program repertoire that highlight the herbs that make each brew unique. Below are some of horticulturist and brewer Amanda Dix’s suggestions for upping your botanical beer game. Even if you don’t brew yourself, these might inspire you to try new things and understand how herbs are woven into this timeless beverage.)

Many culinary dishes and beverages are abundant with tropical herbs, spices, and fruit. Beer is no exception, and using unique ingredients alongside barley, hops, and yeast is very common these days.

When formulating a beer recipe, be sure to take into account all of the ingredients collectively. There are so many types of malt, yeast, and hops out there. Focusing on how each ingredient will interact and complement each other is key to making a multi-layered, yet balanced brew.

First, start with the base beer and decide what flavors would interact well with the fruit, herb, or spice. Ask yourself:

What type of flavor does this malt give off? (biscuit, caramel, roasty, malty)

What kind of esters or phenols does this yeast make? (fruity, spicy, funky, none)

What flavors, aromas, and bitterness does this hop provide? (spicy, woody, fruity, floral)

Second, decide at what point in the brewing process this specialty ingredient will be most useful. One of the easiest ways to impart additional flavors in your beer is to add fruit, herbs, or spices during the secondary (post) fermentation process. They can be added to the boil, but their flavor and aroma will be more subtle. So, for the most punch, add some botanical blends during secondary fermentation. The sky’s the limit when it comes to the infusions you create, but here are a few ideas to get you started. CHEERS!

ginger-1960613_960_720Ginger (fresh, thinly sliced)

0.5-1 oz. per gallon in secondary fermentation (or 0.25-1 oz. per gallon in last 5 minutes of boil)

Beer style suggestions: American Wheat, Kolsch, Stout, Belgian, Sour/Wild Ale.

Roasted_coffee_beansCoffee (whole bean, crushed, or cold brewed)

4 oz. cold brewed per gallon in secondary fermentation OR 1-2 oz. whole bean or crushed per gallon in secondary fermentation.

Beer style suggestions: Stout, Porter, Cream Ale.

5474684018_9181629f19_bChocolate (cocoa nibs)

4-10 oz. per gallon in secondary fermentation.

Beer style suggestions: Stout, Porter, Brown Ale.

 

Citrus_fruits

Citrus (lemon, lime, orange, tangerine, mandarin, grapefruit, kumquat, etc.)

0.5-1.5 lbs. per gallon in secondary fermentation.

Beer style suggestions: Hefeweizen, American Wheat, Saison, IPA, Sour/Wild Ale.

hibiscus calyxHibiscus (dried calyx)

1-1.5 oz. per gallon in secondary fermentation (or make tea infusion).

Beer style suggestions: Wheat, Sour/Wild Ale, Bonde, Kolsch, IPA (or anything light colored to admire the red coloration and delicate flower aroma).

nutmeg-390318_1280Cardamom, Clove, Nutmeg, or Cinnamon

4-5 grams per 5 gallon batch in secondary fermentation.

Beer style suggestions: Wheat Ales, Saison, Stout/Porter (holiday beer), Pumpkin beer.

 

vanilla-vanilla-bars-spice-ingredients-royalty-free-thumbnail

Vanilla (whole bean sliced/scraped)

2-3 beans per 5 gallon batch – soak in vodka or bourbon for two weeks and add tincture to secondary fermentation.

Beer style suggestions: Stout, Porter, Belgian.

 


hibiscus for beerAmanda got her B.S. in Environmental Horticulture with an emphasis on floriculture crop production from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She has always had a strong passion for anything involving the outdoors/nature and plants/animals. Her wide array of experience in the horticulture field at botanical gardens, arboreta, nurseries, and farms has led her to become the Assistant Conservatory Curator at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, WI. Amanda works in the tropical conservatory and oversees the production of the annuals that go out in Olbrich’s 16 acres of gardens. For the past 10 years, she has had a strong passion for craft beer and brewing, and hopes to one day become a Certified Cicerone.