The world’s most prized herbs, spices and seasonings

Given that it is winter in the northern hemisphere now, it seems appropriate to take a look at herbs and spices. After all, these have an intrinsic link with food, particularly at this time of the year. Salt was used to preserve meats so they could be eaten through the harsh winter, while garlic provides warmth in the cold months and cinnamon has a history with Christmas recipes dating back centuries. So it is in this spirit that we track down the world’s most prized examples of herbs, spice and seasonings.

 

 

 

 

1. Salt – Jukyeom/Bamboo Salt

Some people will tell you that all salt tastes the same, no matter where it comes from. They are wrong. While all salt is a form of sodium, the structure of the salt crystal plays an important role in its taste. So salt flakes – thin slivers of salt crystals – provide a greater surface area, and thus flavour, than salt grains. There are many, many prized varieties of salt in the world – from French sea salt lovingly harvested from the ocean in Brittany to pink Himalayan salt hewn from the world’s tallest mountain range – but the world’s most expensive salt comes from Korea. Known as jukyeom or bamboo salt, this is salt that is sealed in aged bamboo with clay, then roasted in a pine wood-fire furnace to 815 degrees Celsius (almost the boiling point of salt) several times. The prized Amethyst Bamboo 9X variety does the roasting nine times, with the final roasting at such a high temperature that the salt melts into a molten form that is then allowed to recrystallize. Intense and smoky, it purports to have health benefits that include inhibition of cancer.

2. Black Pepper – Tellicherry

Malaysians will tell you that Sarawak black pepper is the best in the world, and the Cambodians will claim Kampot deserves that title instead. There’s no accounting for taste, but general consensus would name the Tellicherry black pepper as the finest. Tellicherry black peppers aren’t actually a varietal, being instead the largest berries of piper nigrum peppers grown in India. They aren’t left on the vine any longer or shorter than usual, but are sorted by size after the fruit has shrivelled into tiny black peppercorns. Tellicherry black pepper are peppercorns that exceed 4.25mm in size, representing only 10% of any given crop. There’s also an additional class: those exceeding 4.75mm are known as Tellicherry Special Extra Bold peppercorns. Some heat is lost when peppercorns grow this large, but that is offset by additional complexities in aroma and fragrance. So Tellicherry black pepper is basically the most flavourful example of black peppers grown in India, a fact that the culinary world seems to agree with. 

3. Saffron – Iranian Saffron

Here’s another way to ignite some geopolitical spats. Ask the question, where does the best saffron come from, and a squabble is sure to ensue between any Spanish, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Indians, Turkish, Iranian and Greeks in a crowd. Each has a claim to fame, particularly Spain with its protected La Mancha saffron, but there should also be an Afghani in the group smiling smugly. It is the single most expensive spice in the world – used to make iconic dishes from paella to boullabaise, biryani to Moroccan tajines – costing up to US$3,000 per kg wholesale. This is because the saffron is the dried stigma of the saffron crocus flower, with each bloom producing only three stigmas that must be picked by hand, blossoming only once a year for a maximum of two weeks. The stigmas are so delicate that they have to be picked in the morning, or risk sun or wind damage. Known as ‘red gold’, you’d need about 150,000 flowers to produce a kilo of saffron, which is about two football fields worth of flowers. Iran is the world’s largest producer, but the International Taste & Quality Institute has named saffron from Afghanistan as the best in the world for the past three years. The experts have spoken, but every other saffron producer will still argue their case.

4. Paprika – Zitava Paprika

Essentially paprika is dried powder made from capsicums or bell pepper. Commonly used to add a zing of heat and flavour to dishes like stir-fried meats and devilled eggs, the taste of paprika depends heavily on the variety of peppers grown – sweet capsicums produce sweet paprika, while hot varieties naturally give a more heaty punch to the powder. It commonly associated with Hungarian cuisine – even though bell peppers are native to Central America – and it is in Hungary that some of the finest examples of paprika is produced. There is no one answer to the question what is the best paprika; it really depends on what paprika you like. Sweet or hot or smoky? Spain produces wonderful examples of smoky pimentón in Extremadura while the rose paprika and Koenigspaprika (King’s paprika) from Hungary are both fantastic. However, our vote would goes to Zitava Paprika from Slovakia, protected under the EU PDO mark, with a distinctly sweet yet spicy flavour that contains surprising depth and intensity. Peppers grown to make Zitava Paprika come from the Danube lowlands, receiving only 60-70 days of sunshine, a minimal amount which forces the fruit to ripen intensely, producing more sugars. And more sugars = more flavour.

5. Garlic – Aglio Rosso di Sulmona

Almost as indispensable to cooking as onions, garlic is the quickest way to add depth to a dish, permeating with garlic’s unique flavour that is spicy with a characteristic mellow sweetness. Garlic is grown all over the world, usually considered a homogenous commodity. That may be true of commercially grown garlic, but there are prized varieties that will surprise even the most plebeian of diners with their flavour. Creole garlic that originated in Spain and flourished in the Caribbean, for example, are delicious enough in their tiny red-streaked cloves to be eaten raw, without the usual sharp astringency found in mass produced garlic. The beautiful purple-streaked Rocambole garlic is a favourite of chefs for being full of flavour, while black garlic is fermented at high temperatures to draw out a sweet, yeasty flavour. Then there is Aglio Rosso di Sulmona – the Red Garlic of Sulmona from Abruzzo, Italy that is delicately complex without a trace of harshness or bitterness. Widely used in Abruzzo cooking but largely unknown elsewhere, tasting this garlic is a revelation.

6. Ginger – Cochin Ginger

Pungent, spicy and fresh, it is difficult to describe the flavour of ginger in words. It is just… gingery. Even the mass farmed versions from China cannot do away with the distinctive tropical taste of ginger, though it is far more diluted than prized varieties. In general, fresh ginger is preferably since most of the flavour compounds have not dried off, but old ginger still packs a punch while lasting longer. Two varieties of ginger vie for the best in the world; from the East, Cochin ginger from India and from the West, Jamaican ginger from Jamaica. Also known as Calicut ginger, Cochin ginger commands some of the highest prices in the world for its lemony fragrance and finely-fibred texture. Jamaican ginger, on the other hand, is not very well known outside the island, but its claim to fame is not just in its delicious taste but its role as the ingredient in Jamaican ginger beer, Jamaican ginger cake and other ginger-based delicacies of Usain Bolt’s country.

7. Cinnamon – Sri Lankan/True Cinnamon

They call the cinnamon that originates in Sri Lanka, ‘true cinnamon’ or ‘real cinnamon’. Implying that there is an untrue or fake cinnamon out there. That’s a rather dramatic assertion, but there is also some truth to that. Most of the cinnamon consumed in the world is cassia cinnamon from the cinnamomum cassia plant mainly grown in China and Indonesia. Sri Lankan ‘true’ cinnamon is the bark of cinnamomum zeylanicum, a separate though related species. Cassia cinnamon is as cheap as chips, and also contains high levels of coumarin, which can impair the liver and kidney over time. Sri Lankan cinnamon does not have this drawback, and is significantly more expensive, given its time-consuming manufacturing process. You can tell by just looking. Cassia cinnamon sticks are thick with very little, if any, rolls; Sri Lankan cinnamon is dense, thin and in multiple layers, from the painstaking process of bundling thin bark strands together. So while cassia cinnamon is an easy way to derive pungency (especially in savoury dishes), Sri Lankan cinnamon has a delicate, complex sweet flavour reminiscent of cloves that is best in desserts and pastries. So now you know.

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Published November 28, 2016
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