Ray McVinnie’s pantry looks like many of ours – jam-packed with every spice under the sun alongside gorgeous grains and condiments making any cuisine possible.
Ray spent an afternoon pondering spice for us this month, to tell us how he feels about spice, blended mixes and how to best use a mortar and pestle.
The history of the spice trade
A quick glance at the spice shelves of any Farro Fresh store proves that spices today are familiar and available enough to be taken for granted. This belies the decisive part they played in human history. They helped build the fortunes of the great Italian city states of Genoa and Venice, both of which made fortunes by being geographic and economic middlemen in the spice trade between the Orient and Europe.
It was because of the stranglehold on the spice trade that European exploration was stimulated in the 15th century. This exploration had a profound effect on the fortunes of Spain, England, Holland and Portugal, making them into powerful colonial empires. Columbus was looking for the Indies and the spices found there. Instead he found America. The main spices that came from there were chillis, vanilla and allspice. This was important, but not for Europe. Chillis were embraced by India and south-east Asia to such an extent that it is hard to imagine Thai or Indian food without the heat of chillis. (Pepper was the only spice with heat before this.)
Unlike medieval recipes (some of which are strangely similar to modern North African dishes in their use of spices), which used spices extravagantly, unless specified in a recipe, it is better not to use too many different spices in one dish as they will cancel each other out.
Always keeps control of flavours by making them yourself
Curry is a generic term that describes many differently flavoured dishes that will sometime have a combination of spices or be very simply spiced using only one or two spices. Packets of mixed spice, like curry powder, have no place in a real cook’s kitchen. A real cook always keeps control of flavours by making them him/herself. Spices are used judiciously, paying attention to the flavours and combination of flavours. Curry powder should be used with caution unless it is a specific traditional blend of spices available off the shelf. English curry powder will not do for just any curry.
The fresher the spice better the flavour
Buy spices in small amounts and often. This is because the fresher the spice the better the flavour. The freshness of spices cannot be overestimated. I can remember, years ago, my first attempts at Indian cooking from a book, using spices I found in the pantry. I could not understand why my food was tasteless and insipid until I realised I was using old spices with no flavour.
If you want them really fresh, use whole spices and grind them yourself. A small electric coffee grinder is excellent for this. Keep it just for spices as it will be ruined for coffee – and vice versa. For a more traditional, if not more satisfying, grinding method, buy a large granite mortar and pestle.
A whole lot of spice
The other way of using whole spices – especially if they are larger spices like cardamom pods, vanilla pods or cinnamon sticks, and being used in a dish that has plenty of liquid – is to use them whole and remove them before serving. This way the flavour of the spice is delicately infused into the dish and no one gets a strong mouthful of pungent spice and indigestible fibres.
Getting the right blend
There is no quick fix to learn about which spices go with what. Practice, experimentation and following recipes, as with all cooking, are the way to become familiar with using spices.
Tools of the spice trade – the mortar and pestle
The bowl is the mortar and the pestle is the thing you hold and use to crush the ingredients being used.
There is a certain satisfaction in using a mortar and pestle and they were traditionally used to grind and crush and to reduce ingredients to a paste. Food processors have taken over this role to a large extent these days.
While a mortar and pestle may be harder work and take longer, they are easier to control than a food processor and the result for things like curry pastes are more homogenous and without the aeration that food processors can create.
Mortar and pestles come in different shapes and sizes depending which culture they are from. The most common, and perhaps the most versatile, is the granite variety that comes from Thailand.
When buying, make sure both the mortar and the pestle are made of granite that is hard enough not to disintegrate when used for grinding and crushing and is abrasive enough to give good traction without being rough. The Japanese have a specialised earthenware, fine-ridged mortar and wooden pestle, the suribachi and surikogi, which is used for grinding things like sesame seeds and minced meat to a paste.
Buy a mortar and pestle larger than you think you will need as you can put a small amount of something in a large mortar but you can’t put a large amount in a small one … better to have too much room in it.
Clean it out with a cloth and detergent and plenty of hot water between uses. Make sure it dries well and leave it in pride of place in your kitchen.