Thursday 14 January 2016


One of the culinary triumphs of my dear departed mother-in-law was her baked ham which she did in the style Un jambon piqué de clous de girofle. Dau.II spent some time with her towards the end of her grandmother's life trying to capture the essence of the recipe for posterity; she may not have succeeded but she does make an exceedingly fine ham nevertheless. What am dis clou de girofle? you monoglots will cry.  Well it's гвоздика, spicchio, clavo, clove . . . Syzygium aromaticum. You can see why we use Latin to uniquely identify exotic species. Clavo [ES] = clou [FR] = 'nail, spike' because the flower-bud that we put into apple-pies looks like a small fancy nail. Spiccio [IT] = segment which hints at the other use of the word in English in a clove of garlic. I've always assumed that our 'clove' came from culinary old French clou but now I'm not so sure: clove is the irregular past tense of cleave = to split into segments. Chambers 20thC Dictionary goes with 'nail'.

My grandmother, who was a good plain cook without much exotic in her kitchen cabinets - certainly no garlic - nevertheless put a single clove into her amazing apple-pies.  Like Dau.II, I tried to capture the recipe before my Granny died but the information was elusively vague: "rub enough butter into the flour to make such a texture, go easy on the water, chop but don't pulp the apples, don't forget the clove".  That was very good for me, because it opened my mind to allowable variation and [unwitting] experiment. Making sourdough and sweet-yeast bread regularly is rather wonderful - every loaf is different but every loaf is good. I did manage to inherit, through my mother, her recipe for oatmeal flapjacks; which have been delighting young-and-old ever since. Movie supplement.

Cloves have a powerful and distinctive aroma the main constituent of which is eugenol [structure R] but like any plant there is a factory of other 'secondary compounds' that give 'notes' to the smell.  A wine-taster would be able to tease these apart from the nose. Whether it's the eugenol or one of the minor constituents, cloves have a numbing effect on the mouth if you chew/suck them.  But the FDA is now suggesting that there is no scientific evidence for clove's efficacy in reducing tooth-ache.  There is no scientific evidence for clove actually working for a very wide variety of complaints for which it is mobilised: vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea, farting, hernia, multiple sclerosis and hiccups. They say that a cream containing cloves, ginseng root, angelica root, Cistanches deserticola, Zanthoxyl spp, Torlidis seed, Asiasari root, cinnamon bark, and toad venom will help problems with premature ejaculation if applied as a cream to the penis. Cripes! You could also apply a mix of 2 eggs, 100g of butter, 200g of flour, some sultanas and a pinch of nutmeg and bake in a moderate oven for 40 minutes.

Cloves are definitely exotic. They were one of the main drivers of a very early multinational trade that made some people mind-meltingly wealthy. Not the poor peons who picked the cloves off the tree, of course, but rather the Sultans who required them to do this task and the adventurers who sailed from Europe to collect them. Time was when the entire trade was filtered through the Sultan of Ternate a small 110km2 island off the coast of Halmahera in the Northern Malucus/Moluccas, now in Indonesia. When Alfred Russell Wallace needed to mail his world-shifting essay "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type" to Charles Darwin, he went across the strait to Ternate because the smaller island had all the infra-structure for international mail.  But neither the Sultans nor the Dutch East India Company were able to keep the monopoly under control because Syzygium aromaticum will happily grow in a wide range of tropical places including Zanzibar and Madagascar.  Nevertheless, about 2/3rds of the world trade 140,000 tonnes/year) comes out of Indonesia.  I don't want much - one clove for each apple pie I make - 5g/year will be plenty.  Now would be a good time to buy - the price has collapsed to about US$8,000/ton from highs more than twice that in 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment