Great Reads: From Australia, A Global Primer on Spices and Herbs; Demystifying Grains of Paradise

The second edition of spice merchant Ian Hempill's book offers over 100 recipes for an expanded range of spices and herbs, including some that are unique to Australia.

The second edition of spice merchant Ian Hempill’s book
offers over 100 recipes for an expanded range of spices
and herbs, including some that are unique to Australia.

A few days ago when I was making pickled crabapples, I found myself ransacking the kitchen pantry for a jar of cloves. Eventually I found them tucked behind the Gujarati fennel, still sweetly pungent and very lively though I hadn’t actually used them for almost a year. When measuring out a tablespoon for the brine, I began thinking about this curious nail-shaped spice. Cloves are a staple in kitchens the world over, but what are they exactly?

Well, if you happened to be chatting with Ian Hemphill, an amiable and authoritative Australian spice merchant, he would likely tell you that cloves are the unopened flower buds of a tropical tree—Eugenia caryophyllata, to be specific—that, planted in groves, forms a “magical aromatic canopy.” And that said tree is so sensitive that the buds must be gently plucked by hand lest it suffer a shock to its nervous system and go on strike. And that the immature buds, picked when they are just turning pink, look a lot like “the unopened eyes of baby marsupials.”

That last phrase spells the delightful difference between Hemphill’s Spice and Herb Bible and almost every other reference book on the subject. (The only exception I can think of is Waverly Root’s very witty Food.) This serious, but not too scholarly volume is the kind of book you might want to curl up with when plotting your next spicy repast. Let’s say you’d like to know where cloves are grown (Zanzibar and Madagascar), how to ask for them in Italian (garofano) or how to use them in cooking (curries, tagines, pickles, and stewed fruits): This is the place to go. The word “clove,” Hemphill tells us, comes from the Latin clavus, meaning “nail”—that’s what they look like—and that in ancient China, courtiers chewed cloves to sweeten their breath before speaking to the Emperor.

The brand new second edition of The Spice and Herb Bible has improved on an already great book. Close-up color photos—especially helpful if you’re investigating an off-the beaten-track ingredient such as grains of paradise or sweet cicely—now accompany chapters on more than 100 herbs and spices. Each entry ends with an imaginative, but not too complicated recipe devised by Hemphill’s daughter Kate—among them, Smoky Clove-Scented Beef in which skewered spiced beef is cooked over rice perfumed with cloves and cardamom. There are tantalizing entries on Australian spices and herbs, such as lemon myrtle and Tasmanian pepperberries, which will be available through Hemphill’s California rep, Uplink International, starting in November 2006.

Ian Hemphill, author of The Spice and Herb Bible

Ian Hemphill, author of The Spice
and Herb Bible

Hemphill comes by his expertise naturally. As a boy, he worked in his parents’ herb nursery, Somerset Cottage. After a stint in Singapore at the helm of an international spice company, he returned to Australia where he opened his own retail business in a Sydney suburb. Today Herbie’s (the name comes from a boyhood nickname) offers the largest selection of herbs and spices in the Southern Hemisphere. (A personal note: I have had a sporadic email correspondence with Ian for several years and have always found him to be generous with his far superior knowledge and extraordinarily good-natured, especially when I have peppered him with tedious and repetitive questions.)

The Herb and Spice Bible: Second Edition is divided into three parts. The World of Spices tackles topics such as buying and storing spices (freeze fresh chopped herbs in ice cubes until you need them), a list of spices used in major cuisines, and a few tips on the tricky business of matching wines with spices. One suggestion: pair hot spicy foods with low alcohol wines from New Zealand, Germany or Alsace. Why? High alcohol wines can make aggressively seasoned food taste unpleasant.

The middle section, Spice Notes, covers over 100 spices and herbs with recipes. The last part is devoted to the art of combining spices. The best new addition here is an herb and spice pyramid–a useful jumping off point for anyone who wants to make their own blends. At the top of the pyramid are Hot Spices–chili, horseradish, mustard and pepper—which should make up no more than 3 percent of the mix. At the bottom are amalgamating herbs and spices such as parsley, coriander and sesame seed, which should comprise about 57 percent. Creative cooks will tinker with Hemphill’s recommendations, but the chart gives a base from which to start.

There are 39 recipes for Hemphill’s own blends including an Aussie Bush Pepper Mix and a sumptuous version of Dukkah, the Egyptian spice blend, made with hazelnuts and pistachios as well as the usual sesame seeds, coriander, cumin, salt and black pepper.

These are the same blends sold by Herbie’s Spices. As Ian told me in a recent email, “We’ve revealed all our secrets in the book.”

The Spice and Herb Bible: Second Edition by Ian Hemphill (Robert Rose, 2006) may be ordered from www.amazon.com.

To order Herbie’s spices, go to www.herbies.com.au. After November 1, U.S. customers can order directly from www.herbiesspicesusa.com or by calling Uplink International at 1.800.896.3070.

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