The end of harvest time in merry old England meant feasting for the farmhands, just as it does today. Such delicacies as anise drops, caraway cakes and "frumenty," a concoction of hulled wheat boiled in milk and seasoned with cinnamon and sugar, were popular medieval fare.
Rosetta Clarkson, a popular mid-20th century U.S. writer of herbal histories, noted that those busy medieval cooks probably did not know the colorful histories of their fragrant seeds, but they grew and used them to good purpose just the same. She urged her readers to be more like the medieval maids in growing and using these plants. Anise, caraway, coriander and cumin, all members of the Umbelliferae family, are four of 12 "must-haves" on Clarkson's planting list. The others were celery, dill, fennel, black and white mustard, nasturtium, poppy and sesame.
Today, she probably would name the same ones; all remain easy to find in commerce, pretty in the garden, and easy and economical to grow. They're also easy to harvest, as attractive in a jar on the shelf as they are in the garden, and some of the old-time recipes that feature them are truly culinary delights.
Medieval cooks used savory seeds to make food more palatable, especially meat, and to aid digestion after the fact. The seeds' good taste was merely a bonus. Culpeper, for example, wrote that caraway "hath a moderate sharp quality, whereby it breaketh wind and provoketh urging. . . The seed is conducing to all cold griefs of the head and stomach, bowels . . . as also the wind in them, and helpeth to sharpen the eye-sight." He also suggests the powder of the seed put into a poultice to "taketh away black and blue spots of blows and bruises," and "caraway confects, once only dipped in sugar, and a spoonful of them eaten in the morning after feasting, and as many after each meal, is the most admirable remedy for those that are troubled with wind."
The colonists brought caraway to this country and used it exactly as medieval cooks had done. American gardening historian Ann Leighton lists caraway, anise and coriander, as well as dill and sweet fennel, as having been grown in 17th-century New England. And Clarkson reports that in colonial Virginia, anise was considered so important every man was required to plant six seeds.
All the savory seeds moved westward with the pioneers or with later immigrants directly from overseas, and frontier cooks regularly grew and cooked with them. By the 1930s, use had dwindled in this country, although English herbalist Maude Grieve noted in her 1931 Modern Herbal that German peasants still flavored cheese, cabbage, soups and household bread with caraway, and in Norway and Sweden, "polenta-like black caraway bread is largely eaten in country districts."
Clarkson, who lived in Connecticut, blamed the seed's diminished use in the United States on two things: The popularity of new flower introduction, which drove a number of ancient herbs from modern gardens, and the poor taste of savory seeds sold commercially in her time, which gave gardeners the idea these humble plants weren't worth the trouble of tending in their plots.
Following are a few of the historical tidbits Clarkson and Grieve turned up on savory seeds for their audiences:
- Anise, caraway, coriander and cumin all date to ancient times, and their uses are well documented in writings on papyrus from Egypt, clay tablets from Assyria and in such Roman documents as essays by the great naturalist Pliny, who lived from 23 to 79 a.d.
- Some savory seeds were considered so valued in the ancient world that they were used as currency, specifically for payment of tithes (land rents).
- Anise was thought to ward off the "Evil Eye," from which ancient people tried to protect their crops. The Romans used anise in Mustacae, a spiced cake served at the end of rich meals to prevent indigestion. Mustacae is thought to be the origin of spiced wedding cakes.
- Caraway and coriander were used in love potions.
- In England, a dish of caraways often was served with fresh apples.
- The fragrance of dried coriander seeds is described in old literature as a combination of sage and lemon peel, and it becomes more pronounced over time.
- In ancient Greece, cumin was fed to departing lovers and pigeons to ensure both their returns; in medieval Germany, cumin, dill and salt were carried by brides and grooms, perhaps for the same reason.
Today, store-bought savory seeds generally are high quality, but they're expensive compared to the cost of a homegrown crop. Anise and cumin may not have enough time to set seed in northern gardens, but the leaves make delicious teas and vinegars and can be chopped and added to salads as well as some ethnic dishes.
Clarkson advises cooks to use savory seeds "sparingly until you feel really acquainted with them." If a seed or leaf is to be used in a fairly dry mixture, she suggests soaking the required amount (crush the seeds first) in some of the liquid for 30 minutes before putting the dish together; the soak helps bring out the herbs' flavor. She offers a coriander-flavored gingerbread recipe as a perfect harvest celebration treat.
Nancy Smith writes and gardens from her home in Leavenworth County, Kansas.