Welcome back to The Spice Cabinet series. Today we explore cloves.
This woody little nail-shaped spice, whose name in Italian “chiodo di garofano” literally means carnation nail, is perhaps the spiciest of spices with its strong, heady aroma.
Cloves are the flower buds of the clove tree Syzygium aromaticum, an evergreen belonging to the Myrtacea family.
For me they are associated predominantly with Christmas along with cinnamon and nutmeg and I remember more than once happily studding a piece of smoked ham with honey glaze ready to go into the oven. But the images of a good beef Randang or perhaps a slow cooked Middle Eastern lamb dish cooked with apricots and flavoured with cloves also appear in my mind’s eye. They are also the main ingredient in those scented Indonesian kretek cigarettes.
Native to Indonesia, cloves are mentioned as far back as 2000 years ago in China and Syria where they were used to add flavour to a variety of meat dishes and curries. The “carnation nails” made their appearance in Europe in the Middle Ages where they was used primarily to flavour biscuit, desserts and vin brulés or glüweins. Cloves were a very expensive and coveted spice, and many wars were fought, mainly between Europeans, in order to gain control over the profitable clove trade.
Cloves contain the essential oil Eugenol and are known to suppress microbes and contain nerve-numbing properties, which has led them to be used primarily to alleviate dental pain. Using them for toothache is mentioned in Roman times and today is still used in dental products and mouthwashes.
Cloves are not commonly used spice in Italy however are now often used in combination with cinnamon for biscuits and cakes perhaps influenced by the spicy gingerbreads and cakes from northern Europe.
It is however a common ingredient when preparing the famous “bollito” or boiled meat from both Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna. Bollito preparation requires the essential broth ingredients such as celery, carrot, an onion studded with 3 or 4 cloves so that the cloves are not dispersed in the broth, garlic, bay leaves and a selection of boiling meats. Meat eaters would do well to try a full Bollito which can include various cuts of beef, tongue, capon, pork cotechino sausage and served with mustard fruits or a delicioius salsa verde.
Then, of course there are the delicious mentions in the first part of this blog post.