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"Everything is in there: it gives you a hint of cinnamon, nutmeg, that pepper-y, clove-y taste, all of these different flavours out of this one berry." Ainsley Herriott

As virtually every article I read on the subject of allspice said - it is the most wonderful thing but it isn't used. They guessed we all had some tucked away in our pantry but didn't use it very often. Which is certainly true in my house. But then I recently came across one of those secret ingredient posts in The Guardian - this one being from Jamaican Ainsley Herriott, who cited it as crucial to his cooking. So I thought I'd have a look. Maybe I can find some new and wonderful dish to try. Maybe even from someone who is not Ottolenghi.

The other thing that all those articles made a point of was that it is not, of course, the same as mixed spice - which is a blend. No it's from the berry of the Jamaican pimento tree which is from the genus of myrtles (Myrtaceae). It is indigenous to the Caribbean and was used by the Mayans as an embalming agent and also as a flavour for chocolate, which it still seems to do as witness this recipe from Shiva Ramatour

"Caribbean hot chocolate Bring 600ml milk and 100ml cream to a gentle boil, then stir in 100g chopped milk chocolate and stir until melted. Add ½-1 tsp allspice to taste, then divide between 6 mugs with a shot of rum in each."

In 1621 the British gave it the name of allspice because of it seeming to combine the scent of several spices together. Elizabeth David, I think was not a fan as she describes it thus in her book Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen:

"it is thought to have something in its aroma of the clove, cinnamon and nutmeg combined. I cannot myself see where the nutmeg or cinnamon come in. A hint of clove is certainly there, and more than a hint of pepper. It can indeed do duty for the clove - and often does, in my kitchen - and at a pinch, a pretty tight one, for pepper. ... there are those who use lavish quantities of this spice in Christmas puddings."

Somewhat sniffy I think, but she grudgingly admits:

"The main use of allspice in English cooking is to give an aromatic scent to marinades and pickling mixtures for soused herrings, salt beef, pickled pork and the like."

And since we are with Elizabeth David I will now mention Stifatho a Greek beef stew that I first made many moons ago from her first book A Book of Mediterranean Food. The version shown here is from a website called The Wild Epicurean, whose author says of stifado:

"There is no rule book for stifado apart from the aromatic and onion base ...

In essence, it has a rich, slightly sweet tomato sauce infused with red wine, allspice, cloves, bay leaf, cinnamon, garlic and juniper berries" The Wild Epicurean

And here I came across a mystery. I remember Elizabeth David's stifatho as being a kind of revelation and a real introduction to allspice, because of the taste which was so different to anything I had encountered in a savoury dish before. I also remember it as being incredibly simple as you can see:

Stiphádo (a Greek ragoût) Cut 2lb of steak into large pieces. Brown them in oil with 3lb of small onions and several cloves of garlic. Into the same pan put 1/2 pint of thick and highly seasoned tomato purée and a glass of red wine. Simmer slowly for 4 or 5 hours, until the meat is very tender and the sauce is reduced almost to the consistency of jam."

Not a whisper of allspice. Or even cinnamon which I also vaguely remember as a possibility. I even reproduced this recipe in one of the cookbooks I made for my children where I said:

"I looked up the various other recipes I have for this dish but they seemed somewhat more complicated ... Some recipes also added some wine vinegar, and spices such as cinnamon bark, 4 whole cloves and a bay leaf."

'Cook for 4 or 5 hours.' We don't do that anymore do we? Which is a pity because all of those stews taste so much better if cooked long and slow. Well I don't have a slow cooker.

The main problem for me, however, is that I have a really strong memory of the taste of a Greek beef stew which was flavoured with allspice. Definitely Greek. And yet I am obviously wrong - where Elizabeth David is concerned anyway. Maybe it was Claudia Roden's Provençale daube as described on Robby Dog Cooks. But no, even though it has the allspice, I definitely remember a Greek and allspice connection - and beef too. Am I losing my mind? I have no answer to that or the mystery of the missing allspice.

As I previously said allspice is a native of the Caribbean where:

"It is believed that one of the first uses of allspice was by the indigenous Caribbean people who used the leaves and wood in a meat-smoking process – a barbacoa, identified as one of the original forms of a barbecue." Shivi Ramatour

And here there is no argument. You cannot have jerk chicken, well jerk anything, without allspice. It is vital. This version is from Paul Chung on the Food and Wine website, but there are literally hundreds of recipes out there. But do yourself a favour and make either a jerk spice mix, or a Jerk paste - this is just one from Shivi Ramatour.

Still in the Caribbean is another well-known dish Jamaican rice and peas in which allspice is featured - the peas actually being red kidney beans - well at least in this recipe from Recipe Tin Eats' Nagi Maehashi.

From the Caribbean, allspice has migrated to other parts of Central and South America, and also into America especially in conjunction with pumpkin there, where pumpkin pie for example often features allspice.

From the 16th century on the spice trade took the spice to the Middle-East (and Greece) where it was greeted with enthusiasm. The website Savory Suitcase gives a fairly comprehensive overview of its use in the Middle-East where It is especially prominent in the Lebanese baharat spice mix that I talked about a while back. Other well known dishes from here are: Maqluba/Hungry Paprikas; Sambousek/But First Chai; Musakhan/Rawia Bishara/Bon Appétit; Shwarma/Little Spice Jar and Kibbeh nayee - this version being a Salmon kibbeh nayee from Greg Malouf.

All of which look sumptuous I must say.

And then there is Ottolenghi. Yes I know I was going to ignore him, but you can't really. So here are just a couple: Allspice chicken and rice with dill and yoghurt and Black-eyed peas with allspice and grilled onion salsa. There are more.

I'm sort of done, but just one slightly different kind of thing to end with Sardine escabeche from Thomasina Miers which I've chosen to represent all the pickled kind of things that were mentioned. It probably demonstrates these words from Ainsley Herriott:

"The rule is, a bit of acidy stuff – a bit of lime or lemon or vinegar – really opens it up."

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall apparently uses it all the time, throwing it into various marinades, chutneys and pickles, just for starters, and one of his team at River Cottage - Tim Maddams has some words of advice if you are going to experiment rather than follow a recipe:

"Allspice can be overpoweringly hot and astringent if you're heavy-handed with it. It's a good idea to taste it (or any unfamiliar spice) on a little piece of buttered bread to get to know the flavour, then add a tiny amount of salt and see what changes. Try it with a little sugar instead and you'll soon have a good grasp of the spice's characteristics."

It is sort of odd is it not, that something that is so crucial to such delicious things as jerk chicken is so little used - even if you do have a jar in your store cupboard?

"most of us eat it all the time without even knowing, because it lends its peppery, aromatic quality to many off-the-shelf ketchups and sauces." Tim Maddams/River Cottage

Maybe start with the jerk dishes and go from there.

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