History of allspice
Allspice, also known as Jamaican pepper or pimento, is the dried unripe berry of the evergreen tree Pimenta dioica, which is part of the Myrataceae family along with eucalyptus and cloves. The tree is native to the West Indies and the rainforests of South and Central America. Today, allspice is produced mainly in Jamaica, Mexico, and Honduras, making it the only spice to be produced exclusively in the Western Hemisphere. The best allspice is said to come from Jamaica because of its ideal climate.
Allspice has been used for centuries. It was originally used by natives of South America including the Mayans as a flavoring for chocolate, a digestive aid, and an embalming agent. It was also widely used to cure meat. The natives called this cured meat “boucan”. European traders who later cured meat in this manner were called “boucaniers,” which later became “buccaneers.” Christopher Columbus is credited for finding allspice in the Caribbean and transporting it back to Spain. The Spanish thought the spice was actually peppercorn and called it "pimienta", the Spanish word for pepper.
Allspice was rather popular in Europe, although not as popular as other spices such as cinnamon. The spice was widely used in England where it was called "English spice." Allspice oil was also used as a fragrance for men's toiletries, a practice that dates back to the early 1800s when Russian soldiers put ground allspice in their boots. Attempts to transplant the allspice tree to Europe were not very successful and many of the trees that did survive were cut down during World War II.
Allspice plants and berries
The plants that produce allspice, called allspice trees or pimento trees, are tall evergreen trees that grow in tropical regions. The trees have gray bark with large, glossy leaves. The bark and leaves of the trees are said to produce a pleasant scent. The plants produce small white flowers in the middle of summer that develop into green berries that turn purple when ripe. These berries are picked for allspice when they are full size but before they are ripe. The berries are generally picked by hand and are dried by the sun.
Dried allspice berries are slightly larger than peppercorns and have a brown wrinkled skin. Inside each berry are two hard seeds. Allspice berries smell like a combination of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg, hence the name allspice. The berries have a strong flavor similar to the above spices with a hint of pepper.
Storage and use of allspice
Allspice is available in most supermarkets in either whole berry or ground form. The whole form is better because it retains its flavor much longer than the ground form. When a dish calls for allspice, simply grind the whole berries in a spice mill or coffee grinder. Keep the whole berries or ground allspice in airtight jars in a dark and dry cupboard or pantry.
Allspice is commonly used in a variety of dishes. Jamaican jerked meats, Indian curries, Middle East dishes, and Scandinavian picked herring often contain allspice. It is also used in marinades, to pickle vegetables like sauerkraut, and as a mulling spice. Allspice is used in desserts such as cake, pie, and pudding. It is also used in herbal liqueurs such as Benedictine and Chartreuse.
A substitute for allspice can be made by mixing one part nutmeg with two parts of cinnamon and two parts of cloves.