The next thing in flavor?

The next thing in flavor?

Earth Day. Earth Hour. Is that enough attention to the topics that have relevance to us every day? Biodiversity for example.  That’s the focus of this post, or rather, spices and biodiversity.

Biodiversity is on the decline. Not good. From a purely selfish point-of-view scientists are concerned we’re losing plant and animals species that could bring great value to humanity. So look for and celebrate the different, the odd, the unconventional, and the peculiar.

Here are 3 strange and unusual spices you probably won’t find on your traditional supermarket shelf. It may be a bit of a stretch to even call some of these spices but isn’t that the spirit of this post? The envelope please…

1. Wattleseed.

Evidently, wattle is used regularly by Australian chefs but the spice is deemed strange and unusual to the Northern Hemisphere. There are over 800 types of wattle in Australia and over the past 16,000 years the aborignes have figured out that there are only about 120 edible varieties of wattle. Wattle tastes like a cross between chocolate, chicory, and hazelnut. We can thank Vic Cherikoff, scientist and botanist, for foraging into Australia and promoting its rare herbs and spices. Other spices include mountain pepperleaf, lemon myrtle and the pungent forestberry herb.

2. Ambergris.

Hope you’re sitting down for this one.  It works like this: sperm whales eat squid–preferably those mysterious giant squid that live in the deep depths where sperm whales plunge. After digesting their meals the whales are left with one uncomfortable reality: squid beaks. These beaks get stuck in a whale’s digestive tract where they become encased in a fatty acid excreted by the whale. Eventually the whale casts the lump via the rear exit into the sea. These stinky, oily, black lumps float around and are eventually broken up into smaller chunks. These chunks are described to have a sweet, earthy aroma like pine, tabacco or mulch. The quality of ambergris depends on how it’s been weathered or aged in the sea (think of a fine wine) and will sell for thousands of dollars.  

Ambergris has been a sea treasure for thousands of years. In the Middle East they used it in powdered form and consumed it to increase strength, virality and to spice food and drinks. During the Middle Ages it was used to treat a number of ailments. Today it’s still used an ingredient that enhances the olfactory notes of a fragrance. Read more about ambergris here. And if you are really curious, ambergris is available for much less than $8000…but only as an oil for fragrance purposes. This exotic spice/panacea/source of wealth/whale excrement even inspired one artist to translate her ambergris impressions into a painting.

3. Spanish Fly. 

Spanish fly is an insect. A shiny, irridescent, green beetle to be specific. Evidentally, its little body can contain up to 5 percent of a substance that is an irritant to animal tissues. Think inflammation (swelling) of key body parts and…well, you know. This is exactly why spanish fly has been historically used as an aphrodisiac. Wikipedia cautiously informs the reader that the required dose is miniscule and the margin between an effective and harmful dose is quite small. Physical damage from an overdose can be permanent.

Why a spice? Insects definitely don’t qualify in any typical definition of spices. But this one is used as an ingredient in some blends for ras al hanout, a Morrocan spice blend that means “head of shop.” When ground up and powdered Spanish fly is yellow to olive-brown with a irridescent hue and bitter flavor. Today, the use of Spanish fly in Morroco is banned.  

So there you go. Of all these these the Australian spices sound the most promising. Ambergris is informative as is the Spanish fly. Although I’d stay far away from the latter. There are other ways to get your dose of the spicy aphrodite than a ground insect that can cause permanent tissue damage. What say you?