Synonyms for Allspice include: Latin: Pimenta officinalis; English: Jamaica Pepper, English Spice, Clove Pepper, Myrtle, Pepper, Pimenta, Pimento; French: Pimenta and Tout-épice; German: Jamikapfefer; Italian: Pimento; Spanish: Pimiento de Jamaica; and Hindi: Kabab Cheeni and Seetful.
The Allspice tree, Pimenta dioica, is a member of the myrtle family. The tree is evergreen and the spice is its berry. It is plucked when green and unripe and then dried. The dried berries are similiar in shape and size to regular peppercorns, though marginally larger and dark brown in colour. The berries are very high in eugenol, a volatile oil that provides the flavouring substance for the berry.
Christopher Columbus is said to have discovered Allspice when he reached the New World. Unfamiliar with pepper, he mistook the small, brown Allspice berries for pepper and brought them back to Spain. Since pimienta is Spanish for pepper, Allspice was called thus. Called pimiento today, its name is sometimes confusing as the Spanish also call chillies pimientos. The spice was imported to Europe soon after, though in spite of its resemblance to cinnamon and pepper, it never acquired similar popularity in Continental Europe. This was probably in part because the demand for other commodities, such as sugar and coffee, outgrew the demand for spices at the time. It did, however, gain popularity in England and was called ‘English Spice'.
Traditional South American medicine uses Allspice to provide relief for digestive problems. It was used by the Mayans as an embalming agent and by other South American Indians to flavour chocolate, along with cinnamon.
Allspice has the distinction of being the only spice that was and is grown almost exclusively in the Western hemisphere. The best Allspice still comes from Jamaica where the climate is perfectly suited for its cultivation. It is also grown in Mexico and the Honduras, and marginally in some other parts of Central and South America.
The Allspice tree is a rainforest tree and indiscriminate felling has all but exterminated the tree in the wild.
Allspice cultivation in India is of recent date. It is cultivated in a limited manner in Kerala, Karnataka, West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Since it is not a spice that is traditionally used in Indian cuisine, and nor is there a great demand for its export (unlike vanilla), its commercial cultivation has not gained popularity.
Jerked meats such as pork, chicken and kid use Allspice. In fact, it is an essential flavouring for jerked food. On the European Continent, it is used to flavour marinades, meat rubs, in English spiced beef and game, in German sauerkraut, in Scandinavian pickled herring and rollmops, as a pickling spice along with dill and peppercorns, and is used to mull wine along with, or as a substitute for, cloves and cinnamon. In fact, Allspice is used in all places where cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg are ordinarily employed.
Traditionally, Allspice has been used in cakes, especially in traditional Christmas plum and fruit cakes. It is also used instead of cinnamon and cloves in pies containing fruit, steamed puddings and ice cream. In America, it is used in the traditional Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Some Indian curries and rice dishes contain Allspice. In the Middle East, it is used in meat and rice dishes.
5 whole Allspice berries yield one teaspoon of Allspice powder.
Preparation and Storage
As with all spices, Allspice keeps better whole than ground and retains its flavour best in its berry form, stored away from heat, light and moisture in airtight containers. The berries should be ground just before use since Allspice loses its fragrance very quickly. It is advisable to use a grinder without plastic parts to grind Allspice as the volatile oil clouds the plastic.
Attributed Medicinal Properties
Both cloves and Allspice contain eugenol, which gives both these spices their properties as digestive aids and anti-flatulents. Eugenol when applied on the skin irritates it and acts as a vasodilator. It is, therefore, a thermogenic compound that makes the skin feel warmer. This contributes to the warmth enhancing abilities of Allspice. In addition to this, Allspice contains tannins, which give it very mild anaesthetic properties. This has lead to its use as a traditional means of alleviating joint and arthritic pains, as well as pain from strained muscles. It is added to hot-packs and warm baths to enable it to act as a pain-relieving agent.
- The modern word 'buccaneers' is derived from the local Jamaican Arawak word boucan, which is the local word for meat cured with Allspice. Europeans, who later cured meat with Allspice, came to be known by the Arawaks as boucaniers leading to the word 'buccaneers'.
- The word 'spice', used for a large number of men's toiletries, also derives from Allspice. Since it is thermogenic, Russian soldiers used to keep the spice in their boots to warm their feet. The consequent improvement in the odour of their feet caused industry to continue its use in male cosmetics till today.
Home-made Jamaican Jerk Spice
The Book of Ingredients: Philip Dowell and Adrian Bailey; Penguin/Mermaid Books 1993