Allspice, the Secret Seasoning of Jamaican Jerk
The Arawak’s, Jamaica’s first inhabitants, knew the tiny berries produced a fantastic perfume. When Columbus arrived in 1494, he saw allspice and thought he was looking at pepper.
So the plant was dubbed Spanish for red pepper, even though the European visitors soon noticed the berries had the flavour and fragrance of barks and seeds from other parts of the world: cloves and nutmeg from Indonesia and cinnamon from China, and misunderstanding about Allspice reigns, particularly in the United States, where many people think the seasoning is a blend of spices rather than the unique ingredient it is.
Allspice, otherwise known to most Jamaican as Pimento, the amazing seasoning for which Jamaica is well known for and the main ingredient for the famous Jamaican Jerk Pork and Chicken dish.On this island, none of that matters.
Allspice, known in Jamaica as Pimento, is well known and loved, turning up in every category of recipe: breakfast loaves of bread, turtle soup, beef patties and Chocho (Chayote) pie.
Perhaps most ubiquitous is the spice’s role in the jerk seasoning for which Jamaica is famous, and in a liqueur made by steeping ripe berries in rum with a bit of sugar syrup.
Although Allspice grows in other countries in the region, and although this island faces increasing competition from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, Jamaican Allspice is recognized as the best.
It’s a premium product…
With its smaller berries and high oil content, Jamaican Allspice is the preferred choice.
The branches are cut from the tree and the berries are stripped individually.
Inland between the northern coastal resort towns of Ocho Rios and Port Antonio is an especially fertile region of the island and a major growing area for Allspice. Here you can find plantations of the trees with elegant clusters of glossy green leaves and a rough brown bark that sheds, revealing a smooth, beige wood.
The slim columns of Allspice, which would look at home in a Parisian park, seem out of place among the aggressive vegetation that grows nearby, including Banana, Coconut and Breadfruit trees. The berries are picked while green: The branches are cut from the tree and the berries are stripped individually. Workers pour mounds of the fruit onto long concrete platforms called barbecues and leave it to dry in the sun for three days. The soft berries are vulnerable to rot and must be brought inside every night.
Very little of the harvest goes to waste. The berries are exported to the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. The Allspice leaves can be distilled into food-grade oils that end up seasoning many U.S. products, such as hot dogs and bologna. And wood from the branches is used as planks on the most authentic jerk grills in Jamaica, inspiring the Allspice-flavored jerk with aromatic smoke.
Jamaican cooks find myriad ways to use the spice.
We cook rice and peas with it, and it’s very important in jerk seasoning, but we also drop a few grains of it in porridge or put it in stuffed beef.
‘The secret is not to grind it, or it will lose some of its flavours.’
It is common to see whole Allspice in many dishes, just dropped in to cook and soften along with the stew or soup or whatever is on the stove. That is so when you bite into it, the flavour explodes in your mouth. Use Allspice in a jerk butter sauce and serve alongside plantain-crusted red snapper as well as in a Jamaican-style ratatouille made with Eggplant, Okra and Plantains.
Jamaica exports the majority of Allspice for consumption around the world, so it’s no wonder that most classic Jamaican dishes such as jerk seasoning and beef patties make generous use of this spice.