Two Ancient Spices, One Modern Recipe
by Victoria Challancin
by Victoria Challancin
In my class for Mexican cooks last week, we prepared Seed-Encrusted Pork Tenderloin with Honey-Mustard Sauce (click here for the recipe from Food and Wine Magazine), a simple recipe in which two ancient spices marry to create magic. Easy, fast, delicious—what’s not to love? There was even enough left-over sauce to use in sandwiches. Now that is a recipe to hang onto.
The dish came together quickly with the grinding of the seeds in a mortar and pestle taking up the bulk of the preparation time. It was equally delicious served cold the following day.
When I teach cooking classes, whether in English or Spanish, I always try to give a bit of history, a touch of ethnobotany, and a heavy sprinkle of food anthropology to help understand why and how we have come to prepare our foods. Here is a brief history on the two spices, the soft licorice-flavored fennel and the pungent mustard, which dominate this simple dish.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
All fennels are members of the Apiaceae (also Umbelliferae) botanical family, which includes dill, anise, chervil, coriander/cilantro, parsley, carrots, parsnips, and celery. Native to the Mediterranean, fennel has been used for both food and medicine for thousands of years. Early records from China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome testify to its early use. As a spice, its history is long indeed.
Medicinally, fennel is most often used today as a digestive and antiflatulent, just as it was centuries ago. Socrates mentions its benefits in the fifth century. The Romans chewed it to control obesity and in the 1st century, Pliny recommended it to soldiers to improve eyesight. In Europe, Anglo-Saxons hung it in doorways to ward off witches. In Medieval times it was considered to be a sacred herb used to treat all sorts of diseases, as well as a good-luck charm. Culpepper, the eminent 16th-century British herbalist, suggested that fennel would help dissolve kidney stones. American Puritans chewed seeds during periods of religious fasting to suppress the appetite. In Ayurvedic medicine, fennel is considered a cooling spice, and is offered after meals to be chewed as a digestive aid. In Chinese Herbal Medicine it is used for a variety of ailments, and specifically to soothe the liver, harmonize the stomach, and to treat indigestion. It also figures in a topical poultice used for snake bites. Here in Mexico, the fronds are steeped in boiling water for a diuretic tea. In my own family, my son always includes a bag of fennel seed for a soothing tea when he goes camping.
Historically, the seeds have been used as expectorants, breath fresheners, to help control asthma, and to increase milk flow in nursing mothers (though pregnant women should not consume them in large doses). Compresses of crushed seeds are said to be effective in the cure of conjunctivitis and the dried root is made into a diuretic tea.
Modern medicine tells us that fennel is a potent antioxidant, like many spices. Anethole, one of the volatile oils contained in fennel, has repeatedly been shown to reduce inflammation and help prevent the occurrence of cancer in animal studies. This oil has also been shown to protect the liver [of animals] from toxic chemical injury, hence a subject of studies as to its efficacy in preventing liver damage due to the toxicity of alcohol.
The fennel bulb itself is an excellent source of Vitamin C, the body’s primary water-soluble antioxidant, which can neutralize free radicals responsible for the cellular damage that can lead to joint deterioration and its accompanying pain. Fennel bulb is also a very good source of fiber, which helps lower cholesterol levels. It is also a good source of folate, a B vitamin that helps protect vascular walls. In addition it contains significant levels of potassium, which helps lower high blood pressure.
The ancient Romans used the seeds as a culinary spice and Florentines prepared the bulb as a favored vegetable. Today, in both Italy and France, fennel is eaten raw, in braises, in gratins, or paired with seafood. And although we may no longer stuff fennel in our keyholes to keep out ghosts, in today’s global market, we can easily enjoy fennel as a spice, as a vegetable, and in our herbal medicine chest.
Mustard (Brassica spp.)
This member of the Brassicaceae (also Cruciferae) family is a relative of cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, collards, kale, kohlrabi and radishes. There are three main species that are used for cooking:
1) White or yellow seeds (Brassica alba), are the mildest of the three and are used in American-style mustard, originated in the Mediterranean region.
2) Brown seeds (Brassica juncea), said to have originated in northwest India, are used in hot Chinese mustard, in Indian cuisine, in German, English and other hot-tasting mustards, and with black mustard seeds in the Dijon mustard of France.
3) Black seeds (Brassica nigra), native to the Middle East and Asia Minor, though used in Indian cuisine, are difficult to harvest commercially and thus not as frequently used.
Used as both spice and vegetable, the versatile mustard plant also has a long history. Mustard was probably first cultivated in India around 3000 B.C. and was mentioned in Sanskrit texts that date to over five thousand years ago. One account (www.thenibble.com) says that fossils of both the plant and the seeds have been found in Stone Age and Middle Age settlements. King Tut was buried with an ample supply to satisfy him in the afterlife. The Chinese knew it before the Europeans did. Pythagoras, in sixth century B.C. Greece, prescribed it for scorpion stings. A century later, Hippocrates also mentioned its usefulness as a medicinal herb. The ancient Romans, who were among the first to prepare mustard paste, took the seeds with them to Gaul where mustard later flourished and provided the basis for various preparation sold by monks in French monasteries in the ninth century. By the 13th century, sauce hawkers, who peddled their wares on the streets of Paris, offered it as one of their products. Throughout the Middle Ages, mustard was a common table condiment, testimony to its popularity. And not only is it mentioned a plant in the Bible, what Christian doesn’t metaphorically know that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains?
In terms of folklore, mustard seed has been used sprinkled on doorsteps for protection of the home and in red cloth bags to prevent catching colds.
In modern medicine, much has been made over the anti-cancer effects of all the Brassica plants. Mustard in particular is a very good source of selenium, a nutrient which has been shown to help reduce the severity of asthma and of magnesium, which, in addition to reducing the severity of asthma, also helps to lower high blood pressure, reduce the frequency of migraines, aids in addressing various symptoms of menopause, and to prevent heart attacks. Topical applications of mustard plasters have been used for centuries for chest congestion, perhaps a precursor to Vick’s Vapor Rub. Too much can cause vomiting, but taken internally in small doses, mustard stimulates the appetite and aids digestion.
Known to inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeast, and moulds, it is the source of on-going studies concerting its relevance in food preservation. One more slightly disturbing use of the mustard plant: the disabling and even lethal chemical weapon known as mustard gas is a synthetic copy based on the volatile nature of mustard oils.