A fascinating world, with a growing availability of products of foreign origin: the chef of the Petit Royal explains how to enrich dishes and drinks. "The important thing is to use them in moderation and do lots of experiments"
There are many spices. Millions of millions, maybe not: but hundreds of them yes. And it is a fascinating world, full of flavors and nuances: especially as regards the spices that come from afar. Why some like sage, bay leaf, rosemary, parsley, basil, oregano, the precious saffron they are an ancient heritage of Italian cuisine. Whether for the availability in the area or because they have always been protagonists in regional dishes. From sage for the Brescia spit to basil for pesto, from saffron for yellow risotto to parsley for sauces. Or, again, the chili, who became the king of southern cuisine, as soon as he passed through Spain from Latin America. The real turning point dates back to the 16th century with the opening of the spice route – thanks to the Portuguese – who brought pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon to Europe from the Indies: an immense commercial value, since they were not only used to flavor the dishes, but also to make medicines.
The spice boom
Given the prices, they enter the kitchens of the rich – in Italy, the first to enjoy it are Venetians and Genoese because of their relations with the Portuguese – to give the extra touch and subsequently become more accessible. Even if they will be reserved for dishes that are not traditional, but imaginative. In recent years there has been a real boom in spices which in Italy is due to three reasons: the greater propensity to leave the Mediterranean to go to the East (from China to South-East Asia), discovering a different use, the increasingly presence wide of places that celebrate (well) the ethnic cuisine and the contamination thanks to the haute cuisine where ginger and its surroundings have entered into many recipes. The second case is the one that resulted Paolo Griffa – executive chef of the Petit Royal, the starred restaurant of the Grand Hotel Royal and Golf in Courmayeur – to become passionate about the theme.
Kimchi and Tajine
"My family has always loved authentic Chinese cuisine and since I was a kid it was a reward for me to go with them to taste it," says Griffa. «So I started to appreciate the flavors of their spices and in my career I have always tried to deepen my direct knowledge. Between trips to the East for work and pleasure, the 30 years old from Piedmont he tasted everything and even took a specialized course in kimchi, the foundation of Korean cuisine based on fermented vegetables and spices that is indigestible to many Italians. «I use it for some dishes of the Petit Royal, obviously balancing it with extreme care, as it is right to do with any food that does not belong to our classic repertoire, he explains. An example that explains more than many words is the Vegetable tajine, cumin and mint lassi sauce, lemon and cinnamon couscous, which opens our service. It is a beautiful mosaic of rolled and boxed vegetables that is part of a gastronomic journey that explicitly refers to the works of art mentioned, in this case the PaperArt by Russian illustrator Yulia Brodskaya. The secret? The sauces, where thirty spices have been used.
The 500 spices of Griffa
Griffa has an extraordinary passion: in his pantry there are almost 500 spices («In 50 gram bottles, while the original bags are in a wardrobe that I personally keep as if it were my treasure, he whispers) and uses them in many dishes. "I try to find the right nuance in those spices that are little used or underestimated in our cuisine, for example juniper or cumin, but the list is very long. The top remains the mixes: even the rarest ones can be found in specialized stores or in e-commerce. Just try one made with peppers on a meat dish, even if only grilled, to understand the difference compared to simple black or pink pepper. But it also applies to raw prawns: a touch of one spice or another totally changes their taste ", underlines the chef of the Petit Royal.
Also ideal for cocktails
Of course, there is no point in having hundreds of spices and herbs at home. Griffa, who has chosen the most interesting for us, considers fifty to be useful to cover all preparations: from a raw appetizer to dessert, without forgetting mixology which is enjoying more and more spicy influences. "Apart from those on which there are historical recipes or that an Italian knows how to dose by nature, you must always have a light hand: add a pinch of spice, taste it, maybe add a little and try again. A very fun exercise, in my opinion . Here are the choices of the Piedmontese chef for the readers of "La Cucina Italiana" and the tips for using them well in everyday cooking.
Fresh and with the peel, it is rich in enzymes used to make ginger bugs (a sort of "mother yeast" with which any other liquid can then be fermented) or to make herbal teas. If cut in half and toasted in a pan, it can be added to broths for a citrusy taste and oriental overtones. Dry it can be used in biscuits and cakes, aromatic and with digestive properties.
In Italian it is called sumac and has its chosen land in Sicily, where they have rediscovered it. It makes sense to use it for meat and fish marinades, because it gives a purplish pink color and releases fresh scents. The flavor is slightly astringent and sour.
Its more tender leaves can be used in moderation in salads, while the dried pods can be used to flavor roasts or to marinate meats, but also large fish. Interesting use in confectionery for sorbets or jams. However, use it sparingly.
There are many peppers, each with particular characteristics and colors. That of Timut differs for two peculiarities: the hints of grapefruit and citrus, not very spicy, and the pink pigment it releases. If it is perfect for seasoning fish, it becomes very interesting when used in pastry to flavor cakes and creams.
On the market there are seeds, dried. They have a very intense and characteristic scent, they can be a valid substitute for vanilla in creams and desserts. The intensity is accentuated when grated and added to a hot mixture.
It is a berry produced from the bushes of the same name. It can be harvested green with a slightly woody astringent fresh flavor or when ripe when the color becomes bluish purple. Perfect for flavoring meats, especially game, but also loved by the world of mixology.
Many consider it just a food supplement, but it is also very interesting as an aromatic ingredient. It can be used pure in salads or muesli, or dissolved in water for an herbal tea or, again, in milk to make a custard that lends itself to accompanying desserts.
There are different types based on the processes they undergo: the white one with an intense and citrus scent, the more floral and fragrant green one or the black one with more toasted and balsamic aromas. A few pods are enough to flavor the rice cooking water or perfume an herbal tea.
Ras el Hanout
This Middle Eastern mix of turmeric, cumin, coriander, cardamom, rose, ginger and nutmeg is increasingly loved. Very fragrant, it is often used to season lamb or vegetables. Particularly suitable for orange vegetables such as carrots and squash.
Curry leaves are a spice in their own right, particularly fragrant. But the mixes remain a balanced condiment for each food. In a yellow curry the dominant spice will be turmeric, in the red one the paprika and in the green one fresh herbs and green pepper. It's fun to experiment …
Based on dried fruit, peanuts, walnuts or coarsely chopped almonds; or berries such as coriander or cumin, sesame seeds, depending on the final result you want to obtain. Used to dress salads and vegetables, it is also perfect for sprinkling over meat to give it a particular fragrance.
Four spice mix
The best is obtained by mixing aromatic peppers with nutmeg, ginger powder and cloves. Care must be taken when using it, as it has a very intense flavor. It manages to give a special touch to Christmas sweets, as well as perfume the environment.