Spices are easy to find now and cheap; you just go into the next supermarket.
Nothing speaks to the special role they played in history – except something does: Christmas and the spices that are popular around that time.
Sweets are the best representatives, in their traditional forms as bakery and in their modern shape, as chocolates. That alone is of interest once one starts to think about it.
Spices, Savory and Sweet
We think of aromatic, pungent spices as being for savory foods. Pepper and chilli go with meats; ginger into Chinese stir-fries; cardamom into curries.
Except, “of course” when it’s pointed out, cardamom is also found in sweets.
Cinnamon in meat (like in hong shao rou) seems outright strange, but fine in sweets.
And then, whether we notice it or not, there are such things as gingerbread.
In fact, there is a whole range of such spicy-sweet “breads.”
Panpepato in Italy. Lebkuchen and Pfeffernüsse in Austria and Germany. Spekulatius. Piparkakku. Kannelbullar and kardemummabullar. Lussekater.
Scandinavia is fascinatingly rich in such traditions of spiced-up foods. They may not have come about through the Vikings, as is often claimed. They did certainly develop through the (medieval) spice trade, however.
Spices were king, they made empires – and at least around Christmastime, the memories of their influence still linger.
They still help feel better in the cold and the dark, when seasonally affective disorder threatens.
Cases to Consider (Eating)
Here, I could leave this culinary-historical pondering – but I love the case of food because it is something that can still be experienced and that still opens links between body and mind, a simple purchase in the supermarket and spices from far away. Or other worlds (such as of chemistry and business, I mean).
Ritter Sport Christmas Chocolate
Ritter Sport, it turned out, not only makes the “winter edition” bars I had long known, but (this year) also a bigger Christmas chocolate. Filled with a cacao-containing milk cream and infused with Christmas spices.
The list of ingredients explicitly mentions cinnamon, otherwise just speaks of generic “spices.” The cover shows cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods.
The taste is certainly very much influenced by the cinnamon, with a note of cacao in, frankly, not the most special chocolate. Still a lot better than the “Christmas chocolates” which are nothing but shaped like snowflakes.
Lauenstein has interested me for a while; they have not shied away from some interesting combinations (such as a spicy bar with dried apricots and chile pepper).
For Christmas time, they have three bars I know of.
One is Spekulatius-inspired, pretty with its almond shavings and chocolate drizzle on top, aromatic, tasty, but a bit disappointing in the declaration of “Spekulatius spice aroma” as providing the flavor.
Two are of almonds and cinnamon. The one I got this time, rather prettier with a spice-heavy almond stick topping; the other with an almond nougat filling, looking plainer, feeling luxurious.
Fazer “Winter Edition” Chocolates
Fazer from Finland continues to make my favorite bigger Winter Edition chocolate bars, even if the Christmas chocolate bar (and even pralines) have disappeared.
(Those used to have spices, nuts, and dried fruit in them.)
There is still a non-spicy caramel apple version (with hazelnuts) that is not spicy, but interesting in its use of dark chocolate.
More common in idea, still only too nice in taste, is the crunch and flavor of the version with piparkakku (gingerbread) crumbles inside; my favorite is the bar with Christmas spices and almonds and cranberries.
And here, from Fazer, we get a list of what spices those are: Cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg.
Hachez’s “Yummy Christmas”
My absolute favorite finding of this year, however, were the Christmas pralines from Hachez (from Bremen, Germany).
Two of those (with alcohol) interested me less, but then, there was also the version with a smooth almond brittle filling – and chilli as main spice.
Chilli is still the missing spice in so much of all this. There is certainly something (and perhaps more) to be said for the aromatic spices that are being used; they definitely are considered the fine spices.
How much of that is because they are better, how much of it just because the chilli is not usually employed well, in its easy appeal to the “extremists” of pungency and difficult relationship with the fancy purveyors of fine flavors, though… Well, I think that is still a question to try new things around.