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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

The Nutmeg Trail: A Culinary Journey along the Ancient Spice Routes by Eleanor Ford

Before sharing eighty of her tantalizing spice-infused recipes, gastronomic archaeologist Eleanor Ford takes us on a fascinating culinary journey. We travel through history and halfway round the world along the spice routes, ancient trails of maritime trade. She tells how:

‘These exotic commodities, now commonplace the world over, once elicited such lustful excitement that a sea trade developed that changed the course of history and the food of today.’

As spice merchants had to make long and perilous journeys to reach their destination, spices were sold for very high and sometimes astronomical prices. There was a time when the price of nutmeg outstripped that of gold! Only the rich had the luxury of using them lavishly to spice up their dishes or perfume their bodies. Cleopatra bathed in saffron. Alexander the Great used it as a shampoo.

The second part of her book is all about the art of cooking with spices. She describes their flavour profiles, how some bring sweetness, others fragrance, heat, pungency, sourness, or earthiness.

Then come the recipes, with chapters devoted to different spices: ginger, peppercorns, chillies, fragrant and floral petals and barks, fresh spice pastes made from lime leaves and lemon grass, and heady flavours and complex blends.

My daughter and I randomly chose recipes which especially appealed to us. As we cooked the kitchen soon filled with spicy aromas, which lingered enticingly in the air. We made:

Green coriander and yoghurt fish. As promised, the generous amounts of coriander with green chillies and cooling, silky yoghurt made a particularly good combination. Just right, we thought, for a special dinner.

Sizzling ginger raita. Sprinkling this raita with shreds of caramelized ginger was such a creative twist on a simple cooling recipe.

Every week tomato lentils. This was a substantial and earthy dish, easily made in one pot with store cupboard ingredients. We detected a slight bitterness which we deduced came from the curry leaves. I would happily make it again but decrease the amount of curry leaves next time.

Acar Pickles: For this, cucumber had to be cut into thin julienne sticks before marinating in a spicy rice vinegar mixture. They were ready to eat in just half an hour and were crunchy and tangy, a great predinner nibble with prawn crackers.

Coconut and Green Chili flatbreads. These unleavened breads were a great success. They were very tender and tasty and surprisingly easy to make.

Roasted Malai Broccoli. Before roasting the broccoli was cloaked in a cashew and cardamon sauce. It was a sumptuous but very rich dish which would partner nicely with a spiced chicken.

There are many more mouthwatering recipes such as the Honeyed Meatballs with Pistachios, the Cauliflower and Pomegranate Pilau and the Minced Chicken Kebabs with Sweet Spices which I can’t wait to try.

As well as being highly informative, Eleanor Ford’s lucid and lyrical prose makes The Nutmeg Trail such a pleasure to read. And the brilliant food photography makes it a very stylish book.

It has made me appreciate how lucky we are that the spices we use daily our kitchens are so readily available and affordable. I use them more mindfully now, taking the time to appreciate the aroma and flavour each brings to a dish.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Allen & Unwin


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