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December 1, 2000

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Food Product Design: Spice Rack - November 2000 - Dill

December 2000

Allspice

When Columbus returned from his first voyage to the New World, he spoke of having found "a tree the leaves of which smelt just like cloves." He was referring to what we now know as allspice.

But the Spaniards were so eager to bring back the gold and spices of India, that they labeled the dried berries of the allspice tree "pimienta," or pepper. This mistake was based on appearance, for although allspice berries and black peppercorns look somewhat similar, they are not related in any way.

Strangely enough, when early botanists began classifying the products of the New World, this aromatic spice was given the name Pimenta dioica (or P. officinalis). This was eventually anglicized to pimento, and to this day, allspice is still widely called pimento in the trade.

The popular name, "allspice," apparently came into use sometime in the 17th century because, though clove is its dominant flavor note, allspice presents a mellower, sweeter, more rounded flavor. One early herbal described it as a blend of cloves, juniper, pepper and cinnamon. Later writings settled on a combination of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, which remains the most prevalent description today.

It is interesting to note that at the beginning of the 20th century, Europe alone was using four times more allspice than is being produced today. It was a very popular spice for processing meats and fish, and in baking. But when World War II cut the supply lines and shattered demand, Jamaican farmers cut down many of the trees, or stopped tending them. Production dropped and has never fully recovered. Today, however, fish-pickling traditions still affect the trade. Eastern Europe has become a major customer for Jamaica’s allspice production, using it to spice its huge herring catches.

What is allspice?

The dried, unripe berries of trees of the myrtle family are the source of allspice. The tree is related to the clove tree, and the oil of both spices share the same principal constituent — eugenol (60% to 80% in allspice oil). Allspice trees average 20 to 30 ft. tall, and are usually found in the uplands. They begin to bear fruit in seven or eight years, reach maximum production in about 15 years, and may continue to bear up to 100 years. The average tree in Jamaica produces about 2.5 lbs. of dried product (about 14,000 berries). However, some trees yield up to 100 lbs. in a year.

Several islands of the Caribbean grow allspice trees, but the main producer is Jamaica. Other sources are Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. Many attempts have been made to grow allspice trees in other parts of the world, but while the trees live and flower, fruiting has never been successful. Consequently, allspice remains the only spice commercially produced exclusively in the Western Hemisphere.

The major types of allspice

Jamaican. The island of Jamaica is the world leader in allspice production, and its spice traditionally commands the premium price. Where the essential oil content of allspice from all sources ranges from 2.0% to 4.5%, the Jamaican product averages 4.0%. Some authorities feel that the Jamaican trees are a different strain from those found on other Caribbean islands and in Central America.

There is only one grade of Jamaican allspice. It is the product of hand picking and careful sun drying. The berries are picked when green in order to retain maximum flavor — once ripened fully, flavor fades quickly. After picking, the berries are heaped onto a concrete platform and covered for about 48 hours. This induces a slight fermentation. They are spread out thinly to dry in the sun for five to six days. Properly dried berries will rattle when shaken, as the loosened seeds impact against the outer husk. The growers then give them a preliminary cleaning and they are shipped to the Jamaican Government Pimento Clearing House for a final cleaning before export.

Guatemalan. In recent years, Guatemala has been an important source of allspice. Visually, the berries are quite similar to the Jamaican, except that they tend to be somewhat larger, and the essential oil content is lower, averaging slightly above 3.0%.

In Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, allspice is mostly a product of wild trees in rain forests. Harvesting is done by chopping off branches (or taking down entire trees), and picking the berries off the ground. In some places, it is a byproduct of chicle (gum) harvesting, since the allspice trees are often nearby. After a brief drying in a jungle clearing, the berries are sent to a collection point where they are usually boiled to avoid mold. They are then dried further before shipping.

Mexican. The Mexican berries are the largest of the major commercial types, and they are much darker in color (closer to black than the chocolate-brown shade typical of the other origins). Mexican allspice trees are believed to be of a different strain than Jamaican. The flavor character of the berries is also different, being less sweet and mellow, and the essential oil content averages lower than in either Jamaican or Guatemalan.

Honduran. The berries from this origin are similar in appearance to the Guatemalan and Jamaican varieties, although they are larger than the latter. Essential oil content is roughly the same as in Mexican allspice.

Buying/using allspice

The higher the essential oil content, the more pronounced the taste and aroma will be. Prices among the origins generally follow this guideline. The end use determines how important flavor intensity will be, but it should be emphasized that higher oil content often turns out to be more economical in the final assessment, because less is needed. Where uniformity in size and color of the whole berries is desired, the Jamaican product is preferred, because it is handled so carefully. This also applies to uses in which the origin is to be mentioned, because it is widely recognized that Jamaican is top-of-the-line allspice.

Whole allspice berries are a staple of mixed pickling spice, and are frequently used in commercial sweet-pickle preparations. Ground allspice is used in such blends as pumpkin pie spice, apple pie spice, seafood seasoning and curry powder, and is present in many formulations for sausage and pickled meat or fish products. It also is used often in sweet baked goods, puddings and fruit preparations.

How to handle allspice

Allspice should be stored in a cool, dry place. Excessive heat will volatilize and dissipate its aromatic essential oils, and high humidity tends to cake it. Date containers when they arrive, so that older stock will be used first. Store them off the floor and away from outside walls to minimize the chance of dampness. Allspice containers should be tightly closed after each use, because prolonged exposure to the air will also cause some loss of flavor and aroma. Under good storage conditions, the qualities of aroma and flavor for which allspice is prized will be retained long enough to meet any normal requirements of food manufacturing.

Spice Rack is based on the American Spice Trade Association's What You Should Know informational series on spices. For more information, call 201-568-2163, or visit www.astaspice.org.


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