Welcome back to The Spice Cabinet. Today we tell you a little about poppy seeds.
If you should find yourself in Rome on a spring day, take a drive on the outskirts of the city or visit one of the city’s large parks like Villa Pamphili. You will be amazed at the number of poppies dotting the highways and filling other grassy knolls. Stop along the old Roman consular road, the Appia Antica, and you can find entire fields of the bright coral flower.
Originally native to Greece and parts of Asia, the poppy plant arrived in Europe centuries ago. Despite the abundance of the flower, poppy seeds have almost disappeared entirely from Italian cooking.
We have reason to believe that the poppy seed a prehistoric spice. Seed capsules were found in Switzerland dating back to this era. The tiny blue-grey seeds (typically about 1 mm in length) are used in both cooking, such as breads and other baked goods, as well as medicinally. Often a symbol of sleep and peace, the flower also symbolizes death since it has black seeds and red petals, which resemble blood.The Ancient Greeks and Romans used the tiny dried seed of the opium poppy.
In the 1st century text Trimalchio’s Feast, among the appetizers the author Petronius describes are dormice “seasoned with honey and poppy seed”. This combination of honey and spices was common to the table of the rich in Rome. Indeed they used poppy seeds in a number of ways including sprinkled on bread, which they ate with figs and honey.
In the Middle Ages poppies were used, along with mandrake, hemlock and ivy to make something called “the soporific sponge”. A sponge would be doused with this infusion and then held over the nostrils of the patient as an anesthetic.
While the non-narcotic, ripe seeds are often used in cooking, the poppy flower can also be used medicinally. Opium is extracted from the unripe heads of the poppy Papaver somniferum which is used to make morphine. Highly addictive, morphine acts on the central nervous system to decrease the feeling of pain.
The poppy has long been used to remedy toothaches and neuralgia, relax muscles and treat diarrhea and abdominal cramping. A friend of the pharmacist, it was once common to find poppies dangling upside from the ceiling of pharmacies to be used in a number of concoctions.
The tiny grains, which contain up to 50 percent oil, are an excellent natural source of minerals. The seeds were recently discovered as a source of linoleic acid, which is believed to reduce the risk of heart disease. Poppy seed oil is also used as a vehicle for chemotherapy delivery.
Poppy seeds – with their nutty flavor and aroma – can be found extensively in European cooking, mostly breads and pastries in Northern Europe. Thus, in terms of modern cuisine, we can almost exclusively find them in Italy’s northern regions, including the Veneto, Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia, thanks to the influences of including other countries, Slovenia and Austria.
Alto Adige prides itself on their pane al papavero, a slightly sweet bread brushed with egg and coated with poppy seeds. While Trieste, a port city located in Friuli Venezia Giulia, is home to mohnnudeln, a type of noodle made with flour, potato, egg and butter. After they are cooked, the mohnnudeln are rolled in poppy seeds and powdered sugar.
Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the Veneto, strays from dessert-like dishes and uses the tiny seeds in a first course. Travel to this ski resort town especially for casunzei, a half-moon shaped pasta filled with beets and topped with butter and poppy seeds.
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Elizabeth Simari teaches Italian culinary history and wine seminars at American universities across Rome. Also a sommelier, journalist and translator, she can often be found in the kitchen with a pile of Italian cookbooks and magazines, replicating traditional recipes or discovering little-known indigenous grapes at an enoteca in the Eternal City.