The Modern Spice Rack, by Esther Clark and Rachel Walker
Looking at the Modern Spice Rack it doesn’t look like it contains both a weight of scholarship and a wealth of delicious and doable recipes, but then you could easily be forgiven for thinking this neat little package couldn’t possibly contain both, and yet it does. Like the little tins of spices it celebrates, it is testament to the cliché that good things come in small packages (or as the Sardinians would have it, the good wine is always in the smallest barrels). Rachel, an old friend and talented food writer, runs Rooted Spices, a spice company which specialises in single origin, ethically produced spices, and has written the first half of this compact and clever reference-come-cookbook, which focuses on the fascinating history of spices and their origins, something we all take for granted as we reach for another stale nutmeg at the back of the spice drawer.
It is easy to gloss over the depth of research here, because it wears itself so lightly, which is for me exactly how it should be. Good food reference books, like good teachers, are those that teach without the reader being made to feel necessarily that they are being ‘taught’ at all, at least in any didactic sense, but that they are instead embarking on a voyage of discovery, thrown into the boat and kicked from the shore by their guide, an enthusiastically vocal but crucially subtle skipper.
This being a reference book, and us the curious voyagers, we can choose where and how to begin. Rachel provides a deep-dive into 24 spices organised alphabetically, detailing their history and culinary uses with great articulacy and flair, and making one instantly want to go off and cook with all kinds of fusty jars one had long forgotten about (Note: beware the stale spice! I shudder at the memory of my mother’s dust-covered beige Swartz jars, which she has had since her marriage to my father over 40 years ago. Interestingly she has updated her marriage, but not her spice jars). As Rachel rightly says, we tend not to buy our spices fresh, or use them quickly enough, or care much about where they are from or how they are grown. Her business, Rooted Spices, hopes to change that, and if lived in the UK, I know where I would go to get my fresh stocks.
I begin with Fennel, because it is the spice I know the best, and one of my favourites. I learn that it is one of the few spices to have taken the wrong way round the spice route, being native to Europe and having worked its way into the Indian pantry long after its early European references. As I know well from personal experience, fennel thrives in the Eastern Mediterranean, which has become one of the main areas of production. The Roman Culinary Compendium De re Coquinaria, contains several references to fennel, Rachel writes, including fennel roast pork loin, a dish from which modern day porchetta is descended. She goes on to say that the main compound contained in the seeds, Anethole, is 13 times sweeter than sugar. This sweetness is perhaps what makes fennel so adept at pairing with bitter flavours (like citrus and dark chocolate) but also why it can be used successfully to enhance dolci, just as in the recipe I made from the book below.
Now I rarely cook with spices. Not because I don’t like them, but because by default Sardinian cookery has become my everyday cookery and spices feature little if at all; even black pepper is rare. Nutmeg may be used occasionally in béchamel, saffron in some dolci, anise and cinnamon in one or two festive biscuits, but apart from that my spice rack is sadly sparse compared to my London days, and as a cook I am out of the habit of using them, too. It is true I use fennel a lot, both fresh, wild fennel and the seeds, and I drink the tea constantly. Thus I chose fennel as the starting point for a recipe. For the second half of the book is all recipes, by Esther Clark, and there is not one that doesn’t make me want to run into the kitchen and reach for my depleted spice rack. The fennel seed, lemon and buttermilk pound cake is singing to me, as is the spiced rum sticky toffee pudding and the white chocolate, espresso and cardamom cookies. And those are just the sweet ones, Esther is equally gifted at the savoury combinations too. Each is tempting, but also importantly, infinitely doable and delicious. This ice cream worked out perfectly. The combination of fennel seeds and strawberry is a happy one, as I imagined it would be, knowing that tarragon with its lemon-and-liquorice flavour matches so well with fragrant strawberries, I could imagine that fennel seeds would, too. This recipe makes a very good, very strawberry-intense ice cream with a top note of fennel which is deliciously different.
There is little more I can say other than that I recommend you make this ice cream, order some spices, buy the book, and then sail off on a mini spice discovery voyage of your own.
For the Marinated Strawberries
Half a lemon, cut into wedges
1 scant tsp of fennel seeds, crushed
For the ice cream:
150ml whole milk
A pinch of salt
Hull and halve the strawberries then marinate in the crushed fennel, with the lemon wedges squeezed over them then thrown into the bowl along with the sugar. Allow to marinate for at least an hour or better a few/overnight.
Make the custard. Whisk the yolks with the sugar and salt until smooth. Bring the milk and cream to a scald and then pour over the yolks in a steady stream, whisking all the time. Return the whole lot to the saucepan and cook over a medium-low heat until it begins to bubble and steam (this will take at least 10 minutes of careful watching and stirring). It should look slightly thickened and juct coat the back of a wooden spoon.
Strain into a bowl and allow to cool before placing in the fridge overnight. The next day remove the lemon pieces from the strawberry mixture and discard. Make sure to get rid of any pips too, then add the whole lot to the cooled custard. Blitz until roughly smooth (I left a few little chunks or strawberries for texture) and then churn in your ice cream machine according to instructions.
Serve, with some fresh strawberries and fennel seeds on top for decoration.