The scent of cloves always takes me back to the early 1960s. I am reminded of the grey-haired school dentist in his pure-white jacket, and the soothing qualities of eugenol paste, made from an ingredient in clove oil, that he used as a temporary filling and analgesic.
My mother kept cloves in a tightly-sealed jam jar on the shelf next to the bay leaves in her larder. She used them mainly to flavour her braised red cabbage with apple. I can remember that, as a child, I used to love unscrewing the lids on both jars, taking deep whiffs of the richly scented condiments within.
Watching Amelie at the weekend, I found myself rubbing my jaw. "I have a toothache," I complained to Peter. He suggested I take a painkiller. Instead, I rummaged through my cedar wood spice box, found my packet of cloves and popped a couple into my mouth, sucking and biting on them ever-so gently. Within moments, the pain had eased and my mouth felt quite numb. Instant natural relief.
Food history tells us that in the Han dynasty during the second century BC, courtiers were offered cloves from a porcelain cup. Having chewed the cloves thoroughly, it was considered that they had sweetened their breath sufficiently before addressing their sovereign, the Emperor.
In his magnificent cook's compendium of herbs and spices, Spice Notes, Ian 'Herbie' Hemphill writes that whole cloves as we know them are the dried unopened flower buds of an attractive, tropical evergreen tree. The leaves of the tree, which is part of the Myrtle family, are said to be not unlike those on a Laurel.
Clove buds grow in clusters on slender stems and are hand picked when they start turning pink. The buds are dried on mats in the sunshine for several days, until they become dark brown and feel spiky. Interestingly, it takes something like 14,000-15,000 of the dried buds to make a kilo of the spice.
An essential ingredient in spice blends such as garam masala, curry powder, baharat, ras el hanout, berbere, Chinese five spice, the French Quatre Epices or four spices, and the Persian advieh, cloves should be used sparingly because of their almost overwhelming pungency in large quantities.
That said, I cannot imagine preparing my mother's braised cabbage without a few cloves. Similarly, it would be unthinkable to cook corned beef sans cloves. Think cloves and other recipes that spring to mind include gingerbread, Peking duck, baklava, apple and pumpkin pie, glazed ham, pickles and chutney, chai, mulled wine and so much more.
The recipe I'm sharing here is my adaptation of Ian 'Herbie' Hemphill's receipt for mulled plums, from his Spice & Herb Bible (third edition). This is spectacular with vanilla bean ice cream.
Aussie friends, if you're quick, you'll just catch the last of this season's plums. Tinned plums may be used, but the cooking time will be much shorter.
IAN 'HERBIE' HEMPHILL'S MULLED PLUMS
1 cup/250ml medium-bodied Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Merlot or Chianti
1/2 cup raw sugar
200g ripe plums
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
thickly sliced zest from a small orange
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Cut the plums in half, remove and discard the stones. Combine the wine and raw sugar in a saucepan and cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar has dissolved. Add the plums to the pot, together with the cloves, cinnamon stick, orange zest and ginger. Bring to simmering point and cook gently for up to ten minutes, until the plums have softened but have still kept their shape. Take the saucepan off the heat and allow the plums to cool in the spiced syrup. Remove the cloves, zest and cinnamon before serving. This quantity will serve 4 and can be kept, covered in a Pyrex bowl, in the refrigerator for up to one week. Preparation time: 5 minutes, cooking time: 15 minutes.
Over to you, dear readers. Do you like cloves? Have you ever used them for a toothache? What is your favourite culinary use for this spice?
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.