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Spice Girl: The Caraway Diaries

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By Lorette C. Luzajic

Can’t seem to shake the pesky Evil Eye these days? Then wrap a few caraway seeds into a cloth and carry them in your pocket. That’s what a conjure man might tell you today, and so would the ancient Greeks. The protective qualities of carum carvi are also reputed to assure a safe journey- so much so that the Egyptians buried the seeds with their dead to ward off evil spirits.

The caraway fruit - technically what we call the seeds are fruits- is one of the oldest cultivated spices, found in foods dating back 5000 years. Some evidence suggests it has been around since the Stone Age.

Don’t confuse caraway or "meadow cumin" with cumin. The notes of fennel and undercurrents of anise are a world of flavours away from the pungent curry staple. The Swedes called caraway "kummin" and it has been called "Persian cumin" giving rise to confusion in cooking. Perhaps the confusion stems from the longevity of use of both spices- evidence points to cumin as even older than caraway. Cumin was used alongside caraway in Egyptian burial rituals, helping to mummify the bodies, so the mix-up could have grave consequences in your cooking! The carum carvi plant appears similar to a carrot plant, with feathery leaves and small pink or white flower umbels. The fruits or "seeds" are tiny crescents with several variegated ridges.

While most popular today in Eastern European recipes like rye bread and sauerkraut, caraway is native to North Africa, India, and Asia. The best grade you can buy, however, is Dutch, and though it is grown in Bulgaria, Germany, Canada, Poland, Russia, Morocco and elsewhere, Holland is the world’s top producer for both quality and quantity. Never buy ground caraway- it loses its flavour quickly.

Most Germans, Scandinavians, and other Northern European cultures regard caraway and cabbage as bride and groom and the recipe for this shmecks appeal may be rooted in practicality than in flavour: cabbage gives you gas, but caraway is a potent anti-flatulent. The ancient Greeks and Romans used is medicinally as well, to relieve gas, indigestion and other stomach problems. Today it is used for allergies, respiratory distress, and as an indisputably effective digestive tonic. It can relieve nausea and concentrated formulas of carvone, an isolated chemical in caraway, can remove hookworms from the intestines.

Carvone is also isolated and used to make liqueurs like gin and aquavit or akvavit, "water of life", a specialty of northern European cultures like Norway and Denmark. In 1531, the first known reference to this caraway-flavoured alcohol is made in a letter to Norway’s last archbishop Olav Engelbretsson. Eske Bille sent a parcel to Engelbretsson, offering him "some water which is called Aqua Vite and is a help for all sort of sickness which a man can have both internally and externally." Akvavit is still widely used during celebrations like Christmas or Norwegian Constitution Day because it helps digest the fatty or otherwise rich feasts like pork ribs, smoked fish, and pickled herring.

Enthusiasts sip akvavit like a fine whiskey, but the bold and spicy taste is definitely an acquired one and does not simmer well on everyone’s palate. Hence, it is popularly thrown down the gullet in quick shots, chased by sips of beer.

Though the caraway booze is a beloved tradition among these Scandinavian cultures, few populations outside have acquired the taste for it. The concept, however, of pairing caraway with rich foods to aid digestion and complement flavours is widespread. While caraway is famous in rye bread, and in its native North African fiery hot harissa sauce, it is used everywhere in pork dishes, sausage, and paired with fatty cheeses like havarti.

And while my grandmother’s sauerkraut is the best part of our family’s Christmas Eve feasting, I leave you with an even better recipe for caraway, quite possibly the simplest snack you’ll ever enjoy- Brie cheese and apple slices sprinkled with caraway seeds. This easy treat will coax the palate into a lifelong love affair with caraway. Even Shakespeare liked to pair apples with these delicious crescent fruits. I paraphrase him from Henry IV: "Come, visit my orchards, and we will eat apples and caraway, and then go to bed."
 



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