Few things reflect the nitty-gritty of culinary culture like the spices cooks blend together in the privacy of their kitchens. These personalized creations are the hallmark of a cook, even as far back as medieval times when there were reported to be almost as many variations of an intriguing blend “poudre fine,” aka fine powder, as there were cooks. I recently attended a luncheon with Anne Willan of La Varenne fame in celebration of her latest book, The Cookbook Library, which traces recipes from medieval times to the beginning of the modern era. In addition to a delightful afternoon, I was treated to a taste of poudre fine – a blend of spices ranging from commonplace cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger to more esoteric long pepper and grains of paradise.
As I savored the new and tantalizing flavors, I was intrigued by the thought that centuries later packaged spice blends abound on our store shelves yet we still blend our own spices for many of the flavors that help define our culinary cultures. Jamaican cooks blend their own jerk seasonings, Ethiopians toast and grind spices to make berbere spice blend, and although you can buy garam masala readymade, Indian cooks describe picking and choosing the spices for their kitchens. Many Mexican dishes enjoy a lift from rich, spicy blends, curry powders are personalized worldwide, while American cooks take pride in creating everything from chile powders to seasoning salts. Virtually every cook and culture has their special something when it comes to spice blends.
Whether it’s nostalgia for how mom did it or the desire to add our own flourish to a favorite dish, many of us taste, sniff and stir our way to tailor-made versions of classic blends. Or, maybe we blend because doing it ourselves frees us to take a handful of fragrant spices and customize them to capture the flavor notes we love. The stuff that trades, wars, and memories are made of, spices may well be the most powerful ingredients in our kitchens.
But it doesn’t have to be exotic to make blending worthwhile. What if you took the time to jot down the spices that give your favorite dishes that little something extra? In those few minutes, you might just start a flavor tradition that your family will celebrate for generations to come!
Try my apple spice blend – everyday with a touch of special.