Guide to allspice with information on flavour, how to store and its use in recipes.

allspice
Although its name erroneously suggests, allspice is not a mixture or blend of several different spices. It is in fact the dried berries of the "Pimenta dioica" tree, which are available to us in the whole berry form or as a ground powder. The berries are a reddish brown colour after drying and are slightly larger than peppercorns.

Allspice is extremely popular in Caribbean cooking due to the fact that it is native to this part of the world. It is probably the most important spice employed in Caribbean cuisine and is predominantly used to flavour hot and fiery marinades and rubs for meat and poultry such as in the well-known "jerk" seasoning mixture.
In other parts of the world allspice is often neglected or left at the back of the cupboard, although it is favoured in the UK where it is used in pickling mixtures, preserves and in a variety of cake, biscuit and sweet pudding recipes. As it has a slight peppery overtone to its flavour, it is often added to stews, curries or soups.

The history of allspice

Allspice was originally native to the tropical forests of South and Central America and the West Indies, particularly Jamaica.

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During one of his discovery voyages to the Caribbean, Christopher Columbus stumbled upon allspice quite by accident, as he was actually searching for black pepper.

Coming across the dark brown allspice berries, Columbus assumed that they were peppercorns and he took them back with him to Europe, after naming them "pimienta", which is the Spanish word for the pepper spice.

Today, allspice is often referred to as "pimienta de Jamaica" in Spanish or Jamaica pepper in English, as well as other names such as myrtle pepper and pimento.

Jamaica is the world's largest producer of allspice today and the climate there gives rise to the best quality allspice in the world.

Other producers are Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, although the quality is not as good as the Jamaica pepper.

Allspice taste and aroma

Allspice was given the name that we know it as today some time during the late seventeenth century due to the fact that it has a taste and aroma similar to several spices all rolled into one - cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper.

As allspice is more commonly sold as a ground powder, many people assume that it is a mixture of the above spices, when actually it is not.

Therapeutic uses of allspice

Allspice has been used in traditional folklore medicine for several hundreds of years primarily as a digestive.

When added to foods that are difficult to digest, such as proteins and fats or foods that may cause bloating and flatulence, such as cauliflower, cabbage and beans, allspice can aid digestion and relieve any discomfort that is associated with indigestion.

Medical research has found that allspice has similar properties to cloves. It has a high eugenol content meaning that it is highly bacterial and it also has mild anaesthetic properties.

Perhaps more importantly, allspice has proved to be very beneficial in the treatment of arthritic and rheumatic pains and other muscular and joint problems. This is because it acts as a rubefacient, which is a substance that when applied to an affected area draws out the inflammation and increases the blood supply to it, giving a warming and calming effect.

Allspice is also known to settle the nervous system, which can be helpful for stress and anxiety amongst other symptoms.

Buying and storing allspice

It is preferable to buy allspice in the whole berry form, as once the berries are harvested they do tend to lose their flavour and aroma quite quickly.

You can grind the berries as you need them by placing them into a pepper mill or coffee grinder or by using a pestle and mortar.

The whole berries will keep indefinitely if stored in an airtight glass jar out of the sunlight. The ground powder, on the other hand, will only keep for a few months.

Culinary uses of allspice

Allspice is famous for being the main ingredient of the Caribbean "jerk" seasoning, a marinade mixture, which is used to flavour meats and poultry, especially pork and chicken. The meat is marinated in the spicy seasoning and then cooked over an open fire, where allspice branches are used for the firewood.

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Other ways in which allspice is used in different types of cuisines are:
  • In Caribbean soups, stews and curries.
  • In pickling mixtures.
  • In chutneys, jams, pickles, preserves and marinades.
  • In mulled wine and other type of hot punch or beverage.
  • In cakes and biscuits.
  • In milk puddings and desserts.
  • In fruit pies, crumbles, compotes and sauces.
  • In bean soups or pulse dishes.
  • In sausage mixture and meat pies or pasties.
  • In meat rubs and marinades.
  • In pâtés and terrines.
  • In ice creams and alcoholic liqueurs.
  • In flavouring chocolate or hot chocolate.

Allspice Recipes

A number of recipes for allspice including jerk chicken, pickled onions and tomato chutney.

Jerk Chicken

Chicken portions are marinated overnight in a hot and spicy mixture of herbs, spices, onions, chillies and garlic and then cooked over the hot coals of a barbeque or open fire for the Caribbean version.

Ingredients
  • 4 portions of chicken
  • 3 chopped spring onions
  • 2 Scotch Bonnet chillies, seeded and chopped
  • 4 tbsp of white wine vinegar
  • 3 tbsp of light soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp of whole allspice berries, ground
  • 1 chopped clove of garlic
  • 2-inch piece of root ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 1 tsp of dried thyme
  • 1 tsp of black pepper
Method
  1. Wash the chicken pieces, pat them dry with kitchen paper and place into a large shallow dish.
  2. Place the spring onions, chillies, garlic, ginger, allspice, dried thyme, black pepper, vinegar and soy sauce into a food processor and process until a smooth paste has formed.
  3. Pour the mixture over the chicken pieces. Turn the chicken to coat thoroughly and evenly with the marinade mixture.
  4. Cover the dish with cling film and transfer to the refrigerator. Leave to marinate overnight or for up to 24 hours.
  5. Preheat the barbeque or grill to medium - high and then place the chicken pieces onto the rack and cook for 30 minutes, turning occasionally and basting with the marinade.
  6. Once the chicken is thoroughly cooked, transfer to a serving dish and serve immediately.

Tomato Chutney

This condiment is best made with over-ripe tomatoes. The secret to a good chutney is slow cooking in an aluminium or stainless steel pan if possible.

Ingredients
  • 6 lb (2.7 kg) of tomatoes
  • 12 oz (340 g) of brown sugar
  • 10 fl oz (300 ml) of malt vinegar
  • 8 oz (225 g) of onions
  • 1 tbsp of salt
  • 4 level tsp of whole allspice berries
  • 1 tsp of cayenne pepper
Method
  1. Wash, peel and chop the tomatoes and place into a large aluminium, glass or stainless steel pan.
  2. Peel and chop the onions and add to the pan.
  3. Cook over a gentle heat for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently until the vegetables are tender.
  4. Tie the allspice berries in muslin and add to the pan.
  5. Add the salt, cayenne pepper and half of the malt vinegar. Stir well and cook gently for about 45 minutes until the mixture becomes pulpy and thick.
  6. Stir in the remaining vinegar and add the sugar.
  7. Continue to cook until the sugar dissolves and the chutney thickens to a desired consistency.
  8. Remove the allspice and discard.
  9. Transfer the chutney into warm sterilised jars and cover the surface with wax-coated paper disks or preserving skins. Screw on the lids. Label the jars and store for at least 3 months before using.

Pickled onions

You will probably need a few days to prepare the pickled onions and get them into their jars and then they will need to sit for a few weeks before you can eat them but it will all be worth it in the end.

Ingredients
  • 4 lb (1.8 kg) of pickling or baby onions
  • 1 lb (455 g) of salt
  • For the spiced vinegar
  • 2 pints (1.1 l) of malt vinegar
  • 6 black peppercorns
  • 3 blades of mace
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tbsp of whole allspice
  • 1 tbsp of cloves
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Method
  1. First of all prepare the spiced vinegar. Place all of the spiced vinegar ingredients into a saucepan. Gently bring to the boil.
  2. Boil for 5 minutes and then remove from the heat.
  3. Cover the pan, set aside and allow to cool for about 2 hours but do not refrigerate.
  4. Strain the vinegar and pour into an airtight jar or container with a vinegar-proof top.
  5. Place the unpeeled onions into a large bowl.
  6. In a separate bowl, mix together half of the salt with 4 pints of water until the salt has completely dissolved.
  7. Pour this brining solution over the unpeeled onions in the bowl and leave to marinate for about 12 hours.
  8. Remove the skin from the onions, drain the brining solution and return the onions to the cleaned bowl.
  9. Dissolve the remaining salt in the same amount of water and pour over the peeled onions.
  10. Leave to marinate for 24 - 36 hours.
  11. Drain the onions and rinse well under water.
  12. Place them into sterilised jars.
  13. Pour the prepared spiced vinegar over the onions until they are covered.
  14. Cover the surface with vinegar-proof paper disks and seal with lids.
  15. Store for at least 2 - 3 weeks before eating.
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