Have you ever wondered where Christmas spices come from or what they are? Or just fancy learning some random Christmas related facts to mention over Christmas lunch? Then read on!

Nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and star anise are all evergreen plant-derived spices that we use copiously at Christmas in British cooking. They are now widely available, but in the past, vast fortunes could be made trading in them; in 1760, nutmeg was over £2000 a pound in modern value! The location of the plants producing these spices were often jealously guarded, even causing wars to gain sole control of their trade.


Spices and the compounds behind their flavours

The main compounds that give these four spices their distinctive flavours. Inspired by Compound Interest.

Cinnamon is one of the most commonly-used spices, and nearly everyone will have encountered it – either in baking, in hot drinks or even just because you once attempted the cinnamon challenge. Nowadays people probably associate it with a brown powder but it also comes as an extract, oil and, more commonly, in a stick form.

Cinnamon is actually the dried inner bark of the Cinnamonum genus of trees. These are closely related to other plants like laurels (highly poisonous!) and bay trees (leaves are used in cooking), which you might find in your garden. Around 12 different species of Cinnamonum are grown commercially for cinnamon production. These are native to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Malabar Coast of India.

The trees are coppiced (cut close to the ground and left to regrow – like hazel in Britain), and once the stems are ready for harvest, the outer bark is stripped off before the inner bark is collected. Only 0.5mm of the inner bark in used, and it dries within six hours to form the rolled curls that are cut for selling as cinnamon sticks. The characteristic cinnamon flavour is due to essential oils in the bark, 90% of which is made up of cinnamaldehyde, which gives cinnamon its taste and smell.


Clove on Wikipedia

Botanical illustration of a clove (Syzygium aromaticum) branch and plant structures from Franz Eugen Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen.

Cinnamon is often used in Christmas decorations, as are cloves, which are pushed into oranges (this can also be used to flavour mulled drinks). Cloves are used extensively in cooking, often adding to the flavour of marinades, curries and poached fruit.

In contrast to cinnamon, cloves are the unopened flowers of the clove tree native to the Maluku Islands (previously known as the Spice Islands) in Indonesia. A clove tree believed to be the oldest in the world is found on an island called Ternate and is 350-400 years old.

The flowers are harvested when they are bright red but before they open – once opened, they are no longer classed as high quality cloves. Their characteristic flavour and scent is given by a compound called eugenol, which has been debated to have medicinal uses.

Star anise

Star anise

Star anise is commonly used at Christmas. Photo: Flickr/Glendon Rolston.

A spice that does have proven medicinal uses is star anise, which is the main source of a precursor used to make Tamiflu. It is also used extensively in Chinese herbal medicine. Star anise is the fruit (pericarp) of the evergreen tree Illicium verum, which is native to northeasterm Vietnam and southwestern China. Interestingly, although it has the same flavour as the herb anise (Pimpinella anisum) it is not related to it at all (anise is actually in the Parsley family!). They taste so similar because they both contain the compound anethole.


The fruits of the nutmeg tree, Myristica fragrans, offers two spices: nutmeg (the dark seed) and mace (the bright red covering or 'aril'). Photo: Flickr/-Reji.

The fruit of the nutmeg tree, Myristica fragrans, is used to produce two spices: nutmeg (the dark seed) and mace (the bright red covering or ‘aril’). Photo: Flickr/-Reji.

Unlike star anise, nutmeg does not have a medicinal value. In fact, it contains small amounts of a toxin called myristicin, which can cause hallucinations and vomiting in large doses. But nutmeg is usually only used in small quantities in food and is therefore harmless. Food made with nutmeg can be both sweet and savoury, ranging from pasta stuffing in Italy to egg custard tarts in Britain. It can be sold whole, as a powder, as an extract or as nutmeg butter which can be processed for use as a cocoa butter replacement. And it isn’t just used in food – it is also used in the perfume and pharmaceutical industries.

Nutmeg is the small egg-shaped seed of the evergreen tree Myristica fragrans, which, like the clove tree, is indigenous to the Maluku Islands (specifically the Banda Islands). The seed is only harvested for the first time when a tree is more than 7 years old, and the seed produces two spices: nutmeg (the seed) and mace (the outer red lacy seed cover). Mace has a wide range of culinary uses too.

Without these exotic spices many of the dishes we typically associate with Christmas would be rather different. Had they not been discovered and traded so extensively, I wonder what would have taken their place?

Mulled wine recipe

Photo: Flickr/Tom Swain.

Photo: Flickr/Tom Swain.

What better way of using all these spices together than by making some delicious mulled wine? Try this method, perfected from various recipes by the Guardian’s Felicity Cloake. It will give you around 12 servings.

2 unwaxed oranges
1 lemon, peel only
150g caster sugar
5 cloves, plus extra for garnish
5 cardamom pods, bruised
2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 bottles of fruity, unoaked red wine
150ml ginger wine

1 Peel and juice one orange, and add to a large saucepan along with the lemon peel, sugar and spices. Add enough wine to just cover the sugar, and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved, stirring occasionally. Bring to the boil and cook for 5-8 minutes until you have a thick syrup.

2 Meanwhile, if you’re serving the mulled wine immediately, stud the second orange with 6 vertical lines of cloves, and then cut into segments to use as a garnish.

3 Turn the heat down, and pour the rest of the wine into the saucepan, along with the ginger wine. Gently heat through and serve with the orange segments as a garnish. Alternatively, you can allow the syrup to cool, and pour it into sterilised bottles for use at a later date.

Have a look at all our Christmas-themed posts here, including last year’s post on Christmas plants and yesterday’s post on plants used at Christmas around the world.

Annis is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre. She tweets as @Annis_R_90.

Featured image: Flickr/Dennis Wilkinson.

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