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Old things

"Whether we grow herbs, eat them, or take them as medicine, they carry us, if we stop to think about them, far back into history."

Rosemary Hemphill

I wonder when first people realised that some herbs, and some spices too, were medicinal? It's hard to imagine isn't it, how that could have happened? I suppose somebody suffering from something, happened to eat something that made them better. But how would they have known that it was the herb and not something else? Whoever it was we know that it was a very, very long time ago because all of those ancient civilisations that we know about had rudimentary herbal medicine. And not just medicine either, they used them to preserve food which is sort of medicinal I suppose, and, most joyously, to make food taste better. It's not hard to imagine how that particular aspect of herbs and spices happened, but the origins of medicinal usage is indeed intriguing.

Because of their medicinal, preserving and tasty properties herbs and spices were much prized as far back as the earliest civilisations. So much so that some became super expensive, allowed only to the ruling classes, and much sought after. They inspired trade, exploration, wars and colonisations. Good and bad, throughout history. Still to this day if you venture into the world of recreational drugs for example.


"Hippocrates, the 'Father of Medicine', was learned in the preparation of herbs, and of a list left by him of four hundred simples (herbs used medicinally, and medicines made from them), half are still in general use today."


So says Rosemary Hemphill in the introduction to her small book Herbs and Spices, first published in 1959 as two separate books - Fragrance and Flavour, and Spice and Savour. My Penguin edition was published in 1966 and given to me on my birthday in 1967 by D___d - DD even then. As he notes, I was entering my 24th year. And it's a small coincidence because it will be my birthday soon. And yes, this is a first recipe post. One from the shelf of now yellowing and disintegrating books from my own ancient history. 24! I turn 80 next month!


Rosemary Hemphill was born in 1922 and lived most of her life in Australia although she spent much of her childhood in Kent in England, where she grew to love herbs whilst staying at the home of her grandparents. One cannot imagine that the Australia of the time had much interest in herbs or in spices other than salt and pepper and maybe 'parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.' Maybe mint, cinnamon and nutmeg too. On returning to Australia and after college in Perth she met and married her husband John, and together they moved to 'the country' in Dural north of Sydney.


John worked in business and Rosemary developed her passion for herbs into a small business. This was around the time of Elizabeth David et al. immigration and a burgeoning interest, by middle-class ladies, as one writer put it, in cooking. Suffice to say that she was successful, John moved into running the business, and eventually it was so successful, by now being run by son Ian and his wife Liz, that it was sold to a Singapore Company.


Eventually though Ian - or rather his wife Liz, opened a new business Herbie's Spices in Sydney which is now a major online supplier of everything you might want in the way of herbs and spices. One of their daughters - Kate is also involved - providing recipes that use every herb and spice on the list. All those things that Ottolenghi tells you to use that you can't find anywhere can be found online at Herbie's Spices.


Rosemary died back in 2019 at the grand old age of 97.


I guess if you want something simple like dried thyme you are not going to buy their version, however much better it is. And I'm sure it is - all the usual gourmet stuff applies here - quality, ethics, environment and all of that. However, if you are looking for a particular hard to find spice and don't happen to live near Asian and Mediterranean supermarkets, then this is the place to go. They've got it all. Plus various spice mixes, either known or created by themselves. Plus it's a good website with information about the herb, spice or mix and how to use it - including a recipe from Kate - as these two items show (the one on the left is that Aleppo chilli):


Back to my book and its first recipe. Well the first spice is allspice, which you could say is an appropriate spice to start with because of its suggestion of a group of other spices which gave it its name.


"the irony of allspice is that it really is incredibly useful and versatile, with the qualities of a complex assembly of other spices, with notes of bay, citrus, mace, clove, cinnamon, black pepper… and yet we hardly ever use it." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall


It also looks slightly like juniper berries, which, in my pantry, are stored nearby and has almost led to me using the wrong one on occasion. I also confess, that like many ignorant cooks of the time I thought that allspice and mixed spices were one and the same thing.


It comes from Jamaica, where it was discovered by Christopher Columbus who brought it back to Europe.


"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 Ramoutar/The Guardian

Nowadays we mostly know it as the prime ingredient in jerk chicken which is utterly delicious and very commonplace. I think I first came across it in Elizabeth David's A Book of Mediterranean Food, and her recipe for the Greek beef stew Stiphado. It was such a different taste and so exotic. Of course I had used allspice, unknowingly I'm sure, in things like rice puddings and bread and butter puddings, but never in a savoury dish. I was completely unaware of spices in savoury food. Such was my ignorance.

The first recipe in my 1966 Herbs and Spices, is Spiced veal roll and somewhat unbelievably I found the recipe online - on a Zambian website of all places called E-Jozi's Recipe Book, but with no acknowledgement of where it came from. It's been tweaked slightly but ever so slightly and also slightly renamed as Allspice veal roll. But look how very 60s the presentation is - those sliced oranges made to look like cogs. Nowadays they would be charred and drizzled with oil. It's very appropriate though because back then, although an interest if food from places other than Britain was burgeoning, it was still really only an interest in cooking the food from Europe - mostly France. Yes we loved to eat Indian and Chinese food, but we didn't cook it. The spices were unavailable and we didn't know how. Madhur Jaffrey et al. had not quite made their presence felt. Besides why would you bother when your local Indian was so good.


That Spiced veal roll recipe is not that tempting. It seems so old-fashioned with its stuffing of breadcrumbs, orange and raisins. The allspice though is used in a more modern way because it is rubbed into the meat before cooking. Maybe I should try it some time - but not with veal. I suspect that most of us these days think that veal is a bit barbaric, although why it is more barbaric than prorchetta I don't know. Any meat really if you care to think about it.


The second recipe is also somewhat old-fashioned and odd - Rose creams - which are basically solidified icing sugar and egg whites flavoured with rose water and dusted with allspice.


I do very occasionally use this book - mostly as a reference if I want to know something about a particular herb or spice. In modern terms though it is a limited selection. No Aleppo chilli here. However, the Hemphills moved with the times and adapted to just about every modern development in the trade in herbs and spices and the ways of selling it. Well done them.


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