During his explorations of the West Indies, Columbus named many things, often, it would appear, incorrectly. He seems to have confused allspice with black pepper, although they do look quite similar. He named capsicums ‘peppers’ also, and any native inhabitant he came across he seems to have simply called ‘Indian’.
WHERE IS IT FROM?
There are several types of allspice, all native to the Carribean, and Central and South America. The English name allspice came from the fact that it has the aroma of a combination of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper. It has many other names, including Jamaican pepper, pimento, and clove pepper. The name pimento came from Spanish explorers who named it dulce pimienta, or sweet pepper, because of its resemblance to black peppercorns.
Allspice is the dried unripe fruit of the Pimenta dioica tree. Jamaica is the largest producer of allspice, and Jamaican allspice is said to be of higher quality due to containing higher levels of essential oils compared to that grown elsewhere.
There aren’t many ancient references to allspice, as most early accounts are from when the Spanish encountered it in the early 16th century. Aztecs and Mayans used allspice to flavour their chocolate drinks, and it is said that the Mayans used it as an embalming agent because of its preservative properties. They also used it to preserve meat and fish, a technique learned by Spanish explorers who used it to preserve their food on long sea journeys.
It is said that during the Napoleonic Wars, Russian soldiers put allspice into their boots for its warming effects, and it probably would have made their feet smell a bit better too.
In traditional medicines, allspice has been used to promote digestion, and as a carminative – to prevent or relieve flatulence. Allspice contains many vitamins and minerals, including beta-carotene, vitamins A, B-1, B-2, and C, niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin; as well as iron, potassium, magnesium, selenium, and manganese.
In Jamaican and other Caribbean traditional medicines, allspice is used to combat colds and upset stomachs. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine it is often used as a mild anesthetic to sooth toothache.
Its common use to sooth indigestion is probably due to high levels of eugenol in allspice, which is known to stimulate digestive enzymes. The eugenol may also contribute to its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.
On a study on mice, it was suggested that pimento extract could improve the efficacy of chemotherapy drugs in treating certain cancers, and research is ongoing.
Allspice is very common in Jamaican and other Caribbean recipes. It is also widely used in Middle Eastern and Central American cooking. In Jamaica it’s an essential ingredient in jerk seasoning, and the berries are soaked in rum to make a liqueur. In Europe allspice is used in baking, sauces, and in pickles. Personally, I’m keen to try this Allspice Liqueur I came across.
To get a taste of allspice, have a go at some of these recipes: