ALLSPICE

30 December 2011

You can’t help but feel sorry for crocodiles – they get something of a bad rap. Not in their teeth-gnashing ‘I’m going to eat you if you cross this river’ moments, more in a “this time the croc is going to get munched” kind of way.

If you’ve never eaten crocodile, then you may be surprised to hear that most folks who have reckon it tastes like chicken. Well, fishy chicken. Given that there’s nothing remotely poultry-esque about the scaled beast, I’m sure you’ll agree that this is rather odd. Our palate doesn’t seem to be able to discern the unique characteristic of crocodile’s taste. It’s not unpleasant, just hard to pin down, and so we couch it in terms of the things we do know.

However the croc’s can be relieved to know that they’re not alone. There are many foods we think about in this elusive way: turnips (bitter potatoes), nashi pears (watery apples), brown onions (white onions with a sun tan).

But leading the pack is one ingredient took this idea to heart and made a name of it. Allspice.

While its name seems to imply that allspice is a concoction or blend of spices, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact allspice is the unripe berry of a flowering Caribbean tree called the pimiento.

Picked while hard and undeveloped, allspice has a thin carapace masking a nest of small round seeds within. The shell is unperfumed, but when split it releases a complex waft of aromas. Some cinnamon, some cloves, some nutmeg, some pine, perhaps even some myrtle. Delicious and inviting, yet indefinable – describing the flavour is like grasping at smoke.

Scientific analysis of allspice berries reveals that their smell varies enormously, dependant on the specific ripeness at which they are plucked, as well as seasonal climatic variations. These differences are more pronounced than you will find in most spices, making the taste of allspice even more evasive.

You can use allspice in an enormous range of dishes, from sweet to savoury, even in preserving. And while it may prove difficult to build a consensus on just what the flavour is, everyone agrees, it’s delicious!
Allspice-scented salmon with Russet chips

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