May’s Spice of the Month

What is Caraway?

Caraway (Carum carvi) is sometimes referred to (incorrectly) as ‘Persian’ or ‘wild cumin’ as the seeds, or fruits, are similar in shape. The plant is a frost-hardy biennial,  thrives in clay rich soil, can grow up to 2ft tall and is a member of the carrot family.

The seed like fruits have an earthy, warming, bittersweet sharpness with elements of citrus and anise.

The spice produces a complementary flavour and can be used interchangeably in some cuisines.

History of Caraway

Caraway is recorded as being one of the oldest recorded cultivated spices with indications of use going back to 3000 BC.

Ancient Egyptians attached symbolic significance to caraway and buried their deceased with it to ward off ‘evil spirits’. It is recorded as being a staple food and medicine in both Ancient Greece and Rome and was even prescribed by the Ancient Greeks as on oil to promote a healthy complexion.

The ancients apparently used caraway to keep fowl from straying as it is attractive to them.

The Romans introduced the spice to Europe and Hildegard of Bingen, the legendary German abbess philosopher and Christian mystic, recorded that caraway was a valuable culinary and medicinal spice that promoted overall balance and clear thinking. She also believed caraway improved health and gave a greater sense of well being and vitality.

According to the book ‘Science of Spice’, caraway became a common ingredient in game and meat cookery as well as bean and cabbage dishes. Plus it was used as a flavouring for alcohol and Kümmel, the German for caraway, is also the name of a still popular liquor.

In Elizabethan times it is recorded as being used to flavour bread, cakes and fruit.

Where is caraway cultivated?

Caraway is cultivated through much of Europe in North Africa and in the Mediterranean region but the Netherlands Germany and Poland are the principal cultivators of caraway.

How is caraway used in cuisine?

Caraway can be used in many types of recipes and has a wonderful complexity and warming taste that can be found in many central European dishes.

In his book the Science of Spice, Dr Stuart Farrimond pairs it with the following:

Cabbage, beetroot – either ground to buttered cabbage or whole to beetroot slaw or soup

Red meats – sausage, beef or lambs stews or to flavour dumplings

Duck, goose – massage into skin with salt and garlic before roasting

Oily fish – combine with pepper, fennel and coriander in a cure

Swiss cheese – pop a pinch in your cheese fondue

Biscuits /cakes – sprinkle into your mixture

In continental cuisine it is added to German sauerkraut, Austrian seasoned beef and Hungarian goulash. In Norway and Sweden they produce a caraway black bread Some smoked cheeses in Austria and Germany contain whole seeds of caraway.

Caraway is also added to harissa the North African chilli pepper paste.

Another important use of caraway in food and drink production is as an element in liquors particularly Schnapps and Kumnel.

Can caraway be used in other products?

Because caraway is rich in essential oils particularly limonene which is sharp and stimulating it is used as a fragrance component in soap and perfumed products.