While Christopher Columbus was busy mistaking the Americas for the East Indies, he also confused the identity of what we now know as allspice. Allspice berries look something like peppercorns, and Columbus assumed he’d stumbled onto pepper. Hence, in some circles, allspice is known as “pimento” (Spanish for “pepper”) or “Jamaican pepper.”
Despite repeated efforts at cultivation, the allspice tree stubbornly refused to take up residency in the Old World. Today, allspice may be the only spice grown exclusively in the Western Hemisphere. Jamaica produces the lion’s share, and the crop is considered the finest in the world.
Given its name because it smells like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, allspice is the pea-sized berry of an evergreen tree native to South America. Used in both sweet and savory cooking, allspice figures into Caribbean, Mexican, Indian, European and North American cuisine. It’s essential in jerk seasoning, can be found in curries and mole sauces, and is widely used in pickling, baking and sausage making. The French use it in terrines. The Swedes put it in meatballs. Whole allspice retains its flavor almost indefinitely, while the ground stuff is best used within six months. It should be stored in a cool, dark place.
On a less appetizing note, during the Napoleonic wars, Russian soldiers put allspice in their boots to keep their feet warm and discovered a dramatic decrease in foot odor. Suddenly there was a new market for allspice oil in men’s cosmetics—remember Old Spice?
—By Jo Marshall