Behind the Flavors of Fall

If you live in LA like me or similar places that only have two seasons, there are very few reminders that Fall is in the air. The weather stays pretty much the same, anywhere around 85 to 95 degrees, so there is little opportunity to snuggle up by the fireplace or break out the cozy sweaters. The leaves don’t really change colors, it’s too hot to pick apples and it hasn’t rained since last April. Born and raised a New Yorker, can you tell I’m missing the East coast a little?

The only real solace I have found is in food. No matter where you live, it’s hard to hide from the onslaught of pumpkin spiced everything and I have to admit, I have been indulging in as much cinnamon-y, nutmeg-y, pumpkin-y goodness that I can get my hands on. Pumpkin spiced latte? Sure. Fresh squeezed apple cider, you say? Absolutely. I’ll have two cups. Fried Squash Blossoms? Do I even have to answer. Ah, the flavors of Fall.

You can’t blame me for surrendering.  Once September rolls around, we all fall victim to well, Fall…no pun intended. Words synonymous with Summer cuisine like “lemon,” “fresh,” “melon,” “light” are thrown out and replaced with their heartier, more heartwarming counterparts.  Smokey. Spiced. Gooey. Rich. And the list goes on and on when trying to define the quintessential adjectives for the comfort foods of the season. Escaping the foods and flavors of Autumn is near impossible, but then again, why would you want to? I love a good Caprese salad with fresh heirloom tomatoes and creamy mozzarella just as much as the next Italian, but nothing sticks to the ribs better than a generous helping of mashed potatoes or steaming bowl of stew. And even if it is near 90 degrees where I am, I say bring it on. I’m ready for the change.

But just what is it that makes these dishes come to life? Dance? Sing? Scream Fall? The secret is in a few key ingredients and spices that you will find either embraced or disguised in every dish from here on out until Christmas. Ok, realistically, until after Christmas. And while we all know they are omnipresent this time of year, did you ever wonder why or where these dominant flavors came from? Well, you are about to find out. Here are the top 4 flavors of Fall and what you didn’t know about them.

Pumpkin- Bet you would have never guessed this one? I kid. Whether it’s flavoring your favorite caffeinated beverage, pastry, side dish or taking the main stage as the entree there is no shortage of pumpkin flavored or seasoned food. But why? Well, no matter if you’re Italian, Irish, German or Scottish, pumpkins or similar squash in one way or another have been part of the folklore culture of the season. They are seasonal root vegetables that grow in abundance during the Fall and Winter months, so throughout history, in one way or another they have been incorporated into scaring off the evil spirits and making memories carving them. Not surprisingly those left over have been chopped up, sautéed, steamed, baked, roasted, pureed, mashed, and candied into some of the most mouthwatering, belly filling, delectable dishes we have ever been fortunate enough to set our lips on.

In Ireland and Britain, there is a long tradition of carving lanterns from vegetables, particularly the turnip, mangelwurzel, and swede or rutabaga. The turnip has traditionally been used in Ireland and Scotland at Halloween, but immigrants to North America used the larger native pumpkin, which are both readily available and much larger – making them easier to carve than turnips. And while turnips have always been used in Ireland, lanterns in Scotland were originally fashioned from the thick stem of a cabbage plant, and were called “kail-runt torches”. It was not until 1837 that jack-o’-lantern appeared as a term for a carved vegetable lantern, and the carved pumpkin lantern association with Halloween is recorded in 1866.

In the United States, the carved pumpkin was first associated with the harvest season in general, long before it became an emblem of Halloween. In 1900, an article on Thanksgiving entertaining recommended a lit jack-o’-lantern as part of the festivities. In Italy, the assimilation of the pumpkin as an emblem for Halloween was adopted from the North American culture. Pumpkins in Italy are smaller, meatier and were traditionally used for eating as opposed to carving. And while today, Italians celebrate Halloween in much the same way Americans do, for them, the flavor of the season is truffles. When Americans are attending pumpkin festivals gorging on pumpkin pie and candied apples, Italians have their annual Fall Truffle Festival.

Cinnamon– Cinnamon is right up there with pumpkins, as far as being ever present in pretty much everything you eat during the Fall. Cinnamon complements pumpkins and

Courtesy of Jane Spice.com

apples like peanut butter does jelly because it is also such a diverse spice. It can be used in the most savory of dishes as well as the sweetest of desserts much like the versatile pumpkin.

Unfortunately, however, modern civilization can not take credit for marrying the two ingredients and incorporating cinnamon into life as we know it. Cinnamon has been around for thousands of years and like the celebrity spice that it is, it has quite the controversial past. It was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 BC, but those who report that it had come from China confuse it with cassia and the Hebrew Bible makes specific mention of the spice many times. Through the Middle Ages, the source of cinnamon was a mystery to the Western world. Apparently it was believed that in Arabia, giant Cinnamon birds collected the cinnamon sticks from an unknown land where the cinnamon trees grew and used them to construct their nests; the Arabs employed a trick to obtain the sticks. This story was current as late as 1310 in Byzantium, although in the first century, Pliny the Elder had written that the traders had made this up in order to charge more.

Finally, cinnamon made its way to Italy via Arab traders who brought the spice through overland trade routes to Alexandria in Egypt, where it was bought by Venetian traders from Italy who held a monopoly on the spice trade in Europe. The disruption of this trade by the rise of other Mediterranean powers, such as the Mamluk Sultans and the Ottoman Empire, was one of many factors that led Europeans to search more widely for other routes to Asia.

Native to the island of Sri Lanka it should come as no surprise then that today, Sri Lanka has dominated the market on the production of the spice, producing 90% of the world’s cinnamon. There are thousands of trees in the cinnamomum family, but only very few of them actually produce the spice the way it was intended, the rest are imposters.

Nutmeg – Nutmeg, likes its spicy counterpart, cinnamon is often seen, smelled and tasted in most Autumn dishes. Slightly similar in taste to cinnamon and just as diverse, it perfectly harmonizes a cup of egg nog just as it does a decadent bowl of butter nut squash soup.

Indigenous to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas (or Spice Islands) of Indonesia. The nutmeg tree is important for two spices derived from the fruit: nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the seed of the tree, while mace is the dried “lacy” reddish covering of the seed. The first harvest of nutmeg trees takes place 7–9 years after planting, and the trees reach full production after 20 years. Nutmeg is usually used in powdered form. This is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices. Several other commercial products are also produced from the trees, including essential oils, extracted oleoresins, and nutmeg butter.

Nutmeg is known to have been a prized costly spice in European medieval cuisine as a flavouring, medicinal, and preservative agent. Saint Theodore the Studite allowed his monks to sprinkle nutmeg on their pease pudding when required to eat it. In Elizabethan times, it was believed nutmeg could ward off the plague, so nutmeg became very popular and its price skyrocketed.

Originally, in European cuisine, nutmeg and mace are used especially in potato dishes and in processed meat products; they are also used in soups, sauces, and baked goods. In Dutch cuisine, nutmeg is added to vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and string beans. Nutmeg is a traditional ingredient in mulled cider, mulled wine, and eggnog.

Nutmeg has been used in medicine since at least the seventh century. In the 19th century it was used as an abortifacient, which led to numerous recorded cases of nutmeg poisoning. Although used as a folk treatment for other ailments, unprocessed nutmeg has no proven medicinal value today

Until the mid-19th century, the small Banda Islands were the world’s only source of nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is noted as a very valuable commodity by Muslim sailors from the port of Basra, such as Sinbad the Sailor in the One Thousand and One Nights. Nutmeg was traded by Arabs during the Middle Ages and sold to the Venetians for very high prices, but the traders did not divulge the exact location of their source in the profitable Indian Ocean trade, and no European was able to deduce their location. The trade in nutmeg later became dominated by the Dutch in the 17th century. The Dutch waged a bloody war, including the massacre and enslavement of the inhabitants of the island of Banda, just to control nutmeg production in the East Indies in 1621. Thereafter, the Banda Islands were run as a series of plantation estates, with the Dutch mounting annual expeditions in local war-vessels to extirpate nutmeg trees planted elsewhere.

Apples : It’s very rare that one goes pumpkin picking in the Fall and doesn’t follow that up with apple picking. Like pumpkins and other squash, Autumn is apple season. The fruit is grown in abundance, and because of it’s availability and versatility, it has made its way into a number of seasonal traditions and dishes world wide.

And while here in the United States, we have informally adopted the Apple as the symbol of America…come on, we all know the tales of Johnny Appleseed planting the future of apples to come in North America, Washington cutting down the apple tree only reinforcing this fruit’s distinct position in American society, and that little old saying, “As American as…apple pie”… but did you know that Italy is one of the world’s major apple producers, one of the top five as a matter of fact.

The region most Italians associate with apples is the Val di Non, in Trentino. However, it’s not alone in it’s apple production domination. Apples are also grown in Emilia Romagna, the Veneto, Piemonte, and Campagna. The crop begins in August and continues on through spring. As is the case elsewhere, most of the commercial production concentrates on a tiny fraction of the roughly 7,000 known strains of apples, and if you visit an Italian market you will likely find Granny Smiths, Goldens, Golden Delicious, Starks, Renettes, Gravensteins, or Galas.

In modern Italian cooking apples generally appear at the end of the meal, either in the bowl of fresh that closes the average every-day meal, or in a cake prepared for a special occasion. In the past, however, they often featured prominently in main course dishes, especially those containing pork. Though the custom of combining fruit with meats and herbs to produce sweet-and-savory dishes has faded it has never completely disappeared, and one does encounter dishes that contain apples, especially in fall.

Which brings us to apples’ other, more entertaining uses during the Autumn season. Besides for apple pies, cider or candied apples which you can find at any respectable Fall festival, road side stand or grocery store, apples have also taken to be known for their key role in the popular past time, bobbing for apples. We all know how it goes. Maybe played it during a Halloween party or two in the fifth grade, but where did the tradition come from?

Played in Scotland, Ireland and throughout most of Europe and North America, the current game dates back to when the Romans conquered Britain, bringing with them the apple tree, a representation of the goddess of fruit trees, Pomona. The combination of Pomona, a fertility goddess, and the Celts‘ belief that the pentagram was a fertility symbol began the origins of bobbing for apples. When an apple is sliced in half, the seeds form a pentagram-like shape, and it is thought that the manifestation of such a symbol meant that the apple could be used to determine marriages during this time of year. From this belief comes the game bobbing for apples. During the annual celebration, young unmarried people try to bite into an apple floating in water or hanging from a string; the first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to marry.

So next time you bite down on a piece of pumpkin pie or are savoring a cold cup of cinnamon-ey apple cider, try to remember where these tastes and flavors came from and that there is more to it than that they jus taste good.