HSA Webinar: Exploration of Spice

Sponsored by The New York Unit
by Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

spice imageThe Herb Society embraces spices as herbs, but what distinguishes an herb from a spice? An herb is the leafy part of a plant, whereas a spice is the “hard” part. So, herbs might include oregano, sage, rosemary, sorrel, and basil, to name a few. Spices, on the other hand, include the bark, root, or seed…think of cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, and nutmeg. Notable exceptions to the herb vs. spice conversation are coriander and dill. Coriander and dill seed are the seeds of the cilantro and dill plants, respectively. 

While herbs take the culinary spotlight for delivering immense flavor to our food, spices often get relegated to fall holidays when cinnamon, allspice, and other favorite spices get used. However, spices can be enjoyed year-round to ramp up the flavor in food. To learn more, join us on Tuesday, May 18th at 1pm Eastern when Master Spice Blender, 2258_2018_LiorBook_WholeRoastedFish_0451Lior Lev Sercarz, joins HSA for an “Exploration of Spice.” 

To prepare for this program consider going through your herb and spice cabinet. As a rule of thumb, stored herbs and spices will last six months to a year. If you cannot recall when they were last purchased, you will want to evaluate their shape and color; unless purchased in powdered form, the herbs and spices should be solid, vibrant, and smell flavorful. So, if your dried rosemary leaf or black pepper do not have vibrant colors, consider throwing them away. Or if they are half whole and half powder they may just be falling to dust. When purchasing herbs and spices, label the jar with the date of purchase before storing so you will know when they need replacement. To ensure the best flavor, purchase small batches of dried herbs and spices in whole form from specialty suppliers.

This webinar is $5.00 for guests/ free for members. Become a member today to enjoy this discounted rate and as a bonus, you will automatically be entered into a drawing for a free registration to our June 10-12th, 2021 Annual Meeting of Members and Educational Conference. To register visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars/

About Lior Lev Sercarz: Growing up, Lior did the household cooking while his mother worked late hours. He later found himself in cooking school and decided to make it a career after working with Israeli Chef Gil Frank, and enrolled at the acclaimed Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France. During that time, he did an externship with Michelin-starred chef laboite logoOlivier Roellinger in Cancale, France. Roellinger became known for his rare understanding of spices, blends, oils, and pastes, areas Lior found the most interesting.

In 2002, Lior brought his newfound understanding of spice blending to New York, where he landed an opportunity with Chef Daniel Boulud at his flagship restaurant, Daniel, as a sous chef and catering chef. He left Daniel in 2008 to start La Boîte, originally making and selling a line of French biscuits, as well as experimenting with spices. In 2011, he opened La Boîte Biscuits & Spices, an art gallery and spice shop in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Today, Lior collaborates with chefs from around the world, developing custom blends, including: Daniel, Le Bernardin, Zahav, Kawi, Del Posto, Marc Forgione, and Michael Mina, among others.

essentials-181108-jewisharts-credit-thomas-schauerLior has written three cookbooks including The Art of Blending (2012), The Spice Companion (Clarkson Potter, 2016), and his recent effort, Mastering Spice: Recipes and Techniques to Transform Your Everyday Cooking (Clarkson Potter, October 2019), which offers 250 recipes informing readers on how spices change the way one makes every meal. To learn more, visit his website at www.laboiteny.com

Photo credits: 1) Spices (Pixaby); 2 – 4) Lior Lev Sercarz photos.

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

Pink Peppercorn – Herb of the Month

The Peppercorn That is Not a Pepper
by Maryann Readal

The pink peppercorns that are found in the colorful mix used in clear pepper mills are not the true pepper of the Piper nigrum vine. These rosy colored berries are from the peppercorn tree, Schinus molle. The dried pink peppercorns do have a slight peppery, resinous taste and add color and sparkle when ground over any light-colored dish. Their milder flavor also makes them suitable for use in pasta and some dessert dishes like ice pink peppercorncream and fruit, or sprinkled over a cheese board.

The peppercorn tree is native to Peru and is also called the Peruvian or California peppertree. This drought resistant tree is evergreen and can be grown in warm parts of the United States, Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand. In fact, it has naturalized in some areas outside of Peru, and is considered invasive in some places. It is confused with its close cousin, the  Brazilian peppertree, Schinus terebinthifolius, which grows in Brazil and other subtropical parts of the world.

Archaeological findings show that the tree was used in daily life in the Peruvian Wari Empire (600-1100 CE), an empire that predated the Incas. Harvesting of the berries was a communal event. The berries, leaves, bark, and roots of the tree were used in medicine, as a yellow dye, and in embalming. The dried seeds were used as fire starters. The primary use of the berries was for making the fermented drink chicha de molle, which was similar to beer. Later, Spanish explorers cleared large tracts of the peppertree and used the wood to make wagon wheels and fence posts.

pink peppercorn tree Forest & Kim StarrThe peppercorn tree has been grown in California for over 200 years. It is one of the iconic trees in the Southern California landscape, where the trees have lined many famous boulevards. It was brought to California by Jesuit priests who had traveled to South America and brought back the tree and planted it in missions. In fact, a peppercorn tree in Orange County, CA, is listed in the National Registry of Champion Trees in the U.S. with a circumference of 367 inches. The graceful, hanging branches of the tree are a desirable feature, as well as the pink-to-red berries that are harvested in the fall. According to American Forests, “the tree is critical to the ecosystem because it provides food and shelter for wildlife, purifies water, and reduces CO2 in the atmosphere.” The tree is dioecious, meaning that a female and a male tree are needed to produce berries. It has fallen out of favor in California because it attracts a black scale that is harmful to citrus.

Several breweries have attempted to recreate the authentic chicha de molle fermented drink of ancient Peru.  Chicago brewer, Off Color Brewing, offers it as Wari beer. Brewers there worked with Chicago’s Field Museum researchers who discovered the remains of an ancient Wari brewery in Peru. The Dogfish Head Craft Brewery also brewed a craft beer using Schinus molle berries and purple Peruvian corn. Their recipe followed the ancient method of chicha makers who first chewed the corn and then spat it out and dried it. Don’t worry, the beer was then boiled before fermentation.

peppercorn beer mugThe Peruvian peppertree is not without controversy. In 1982, The US Food and Drug Administration banned import of the berries from France’s Réunion Islands because allergic reactions to the berries were reported. France objected because the berries were a major cash crop for the islands. They presented research showing that their berries were safe. However, it was noted that the tree was in the cashew and sumac family (Anacardiaceae), and anyone who is sensitive to these plants could have a reaction when eating the peppertree berries. It was determined that the Peruvian Schinus molle berries had a slightly different chemical content because of where the tree was grown and the berries were safer to eat. Restaurateurs who had hailed the pink peppercorn as “the spice of the 80s” were happy.  The berries of Schinus molle do have the FDA’s GRAS status (Generally Recognized as Safe).

Indigenous people all around the world have found uses for the leaves, bark, berries, and roots of the Schinus molle tree. Some of these uses continue today.

  • A tea is made from the leaves in some African countries to treat respiratory problems.
  • Ethiopians use the leaves to repel houseflies.
  • A fumigant made from the essential oil has been found effective against bedbugs.
  • Extracts of the leaves and fruit have been found effective against some types of bacteria and against leukemia cells.
  • In New Zealand, the tree is the host plant for the giant gum emperor moth caterpillar.pepper corn Male_Emperor_Gum_Moth
  • In Mexico, a fermented drink called copalocle is made from the berries.
  • Fresh, green leaves were used in traditional cleansing and blessing ceremonies in Central America.
  • In Peru, the sap is used as a mild laxative and a diuretic, and the entire plant is used for fractures and as a topical antiseptic. The oleoresin is used externally as a vulnerary (wound healer), styptic (stops bleeding), and for toothaches, and it is taken internally for rheumatism and as a purgative.
  • Other traditional medicinal uses of the tree include using it as an astringent, diuretic, and expectorant. The ailments it is known to treat include menstrual disorders, bronchitis, gingivitis, gonorrhea, gout, tuberculosis, tumors, ulcers, urethritis, warts, wounds, and urogenital and venereal diseases.

The pink peppercorn is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for February. For more information on Peruvian peppercorns, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage. https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Pink peppercorn leaf and berries (Creative Commons); 2) Pink peppercorn tree (Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons); 3) Wari Empire Kero chicha de molle mug (National Academy of Sciences of the United States Proceedings 11/25/05); 4) Giant emperor gum moth (Creative Commons)

References

American Forests. Champion Tree National Tree Register: Peppertree.  Sept. 15, 2016. https://www.americanforests.org/big-trees/peppertree-schinus-molle-2/  Accessed 14 Jan 2021.

Ewbank, Anne. “When people panicked over pink peppercorns.” https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/are-pink-peppercorns-poisonous September 18, 2018. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Health Benefits Times. “ Know about the California Peppertree.” https://www.healthbenefitstimes.com/california-pepper-tree  Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Masters, Nathan. “When Pepper Trees Shaded the ‘Sunny Southland’.” KCET. September 13, 2013. https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/when-pepper-trees-shaded-the-sunny-southland Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Moseley, Michael, etal. “Evaluating an ancient imperial colony.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. Nov. 29, 2005. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4152467 Accessed 14 Jan. 2021

Valdez, Lidio M. “Molle beer production in a Peruvian central highland valley.” Journal of Anthropological Research 68, no. 1 (2012): 71-93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23264591. Accessed 11 Jan. 2021

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.