Spice it up

Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and allspice are the seasonings of the season.


The sprinkle of nutmeg on the eggnog, the whiff of gingerbread cookies baking in the oven, the aroma of cinnamon, cloves and allspice in the cider.

These are the scents of the season.

"They definitely bring up Christmas memories," says Ann D. Wilder, president of Vann's Spices, who lists allspice, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon as the spices she most closely associates with the holidays. "It's what Christmas smells like to me, with a little evergreen thrown in."

These spices, along with perhaps star anise and cardamom, have been enhancing Christmas recipes for centuries. And even before Christmas was celebrated in Europe, fragrant and expensive spices enlivened the winter pagan celebrations.

Consumers will buy more than 31 million pounds of spices, seasoning and extract in November and December - about a fifth of all the spices sold in the year, says Laurie Harrsen, spokeswoman for Hunt Valley spice maker McCormick & Co.

By far the most popular spice is cinnamon, followed by nutmeg, ginger, cloves and allspice, Harrsen says. Their prices range from $2.29 for an ounce of cinnamon to almost $5 for a little less than an ounce of ground cloves.

Centuries ago, spices were so rare that they could be worth more than gold. Wars were fought and new lands explored in pursuit of precious spices. Perhaps because spices were so rare, they came to be associated with holiday foods - a bit of indulgence families allowed themselves for the celebrations.

Richard Stuthmann, director of instruction at Baltimore International College, says no doubt the bleak winter days also played a role. "The days get short and the nights are longer. It's gray and brown and dreary." Add a touch of cinnamon to a cup of cider, he adds, and "it just brightens up the home and gives it that warmth."

While the same spices appear again and again in recipes, their prevalence varies somewhat from place to place.

Baltimore County cooking instructor Maria Springer, a native of Austria, associates cinnamon and cloves with Christmas because those are the spices Austrian bakers often use in their cookies, including the famous Linzer torte.

She adds to her spice list ginger, which women baked into cakes for soldiers in the Middle Ages. Eventually, those cakes became decorated shapes and in Germany they were turned into little houses at Christmastime. "The weather was bad and there was no TV and they had lots of time," Springer jokes.

The tradition continues today in many homes. Springer holds classes on making gingerbread houses in the weeks before Christmas.

Gingerbread houses are also a tradition in Stuthmann's home, although he and his children have gone beyond the houses to create personalized gifts for friends and family- a gingerbread police car for a relative, a golf cart for a minister and a steel drum for a band teacher.

"It's a happy time," he says.


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