Back in Thyme

History held in seeds and spices

| October/November 2003

  • During William Shakespeare's time, apples - served as dessert - usually were accompanied by a dish of caraway seeds.
  • Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) was fed to departing lovers and pigeons to ensure both their returns. Today, coriander serves as an important ingredient in curry, but its culinary and medicinal use was recorded as early as 1550 B.C.

Recipe: Rosetta Clarkson's Gingerbread with Coriander Seeds 

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.

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