In times gone by, they were as valuable as gold; small in size, in constant demand and incredibly expensive – and coveted by merchants and kings – spices have historically transcended the boundaries of the kitchen. But it is in pots and pans where their true potential emerges: an explosion of fragrances and flavours where, in the words of the maestro picolier, Marcos Reguera, ‘they enhance dishes’.
Spices have the ability to enhance flavours, to balance excesses or defects in dishes, and can even transport us through time and space by transmitting feelings or memories to us.
Cinnamon sprinkled on rice pudding evokes our childhood; turmeric allows us to travel to the frontiers of the East and, together with saffron, pepper, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, cumin and many other spices they create a sensory-gastronomic map of culture and good food. As the recently-Michelin-starred chef from Jaén, Pedro Sánchez, reminds us, spices embody almost everything as ‘they add joy to ingredients and dishes that without them would lack soul.’
In Spain, their use is historical: Traditional Spanish cuisine spans an immense repertoire of a love for spices, both in variety and in culinary versatility (pickles, sausages, pâtés, desserts, etc.). Our gastronomic heritage is vast, and spices that are almost unknown today, such as caraway, were a common spice in the 19th century, particularly in Andalusia; but conversely, their use in home kitchens has dwindled. ‘We cook less and less at home,’ says Marcos Reguera, ‘and we tend to narrow the number of ingredients we have in our pantries, standardizing the products that we use.’ Recovering our traditional cuisine and using different condiments depends, according to Pedro Sánchez, ‘on the value that cooks give them.’ Once again, it is haute cuisine that is responsible for rescuing the forgotten intrinsic values of traditional cuisine; now that the commercial glory days of spices is a thing of the past, it is time to make up for it in our cooking.
Cloves, saffron from Castile, cumin and star anise are those which this chef from Jaén always has in his kitchen; fresh nutmeg, Lampong black pepper, turmeric and coriander seeds are Marcos Reguera’s must-haves. That could be a good start for getting your spice shelf going, although the range to choose from is wide, and gets even wider when spices from afar are included.
As for the latter, Pedro Sánchez warns, ‘don’t use them any old how; sometimes we are tempted to use too much and that’s dangerous.’ Spices traditionally used in other cultures are welcome, but Reguera agrees with Sánchez, ‘they must be used with restraint, and if we are able to use them in a balanced way, they will lose their usurping character.’
Spices contain myriad secrets; they are a fun, versatile and enriching world that Marcos Reguera and Pedro Sánchez invite us to explore in the workshop they will host next 29 January (16:00) as part of the Reale Seguros Madrid Fusión congress. Let’s play our part in recovering home cooking that is full of flavour. A pinch of ginger, a teaspoon of vanilla, a sprinkle of paprika, a strand of saffron, a smidgen of aniseed… the palette of colours, flavours and aromas is immense. There are no excuses. Enhance your dishes.