Grenada's Garden of Herbs, spices and Health Remedies
Open your kitchen cupboard and some of the herbs and spices that you use in everyday cooking are bound to come from Grenada. Known as the spice island of the Caribbean, I journeyed there recently and took the opportunity to visit a herb and spice garden to see what the island had to offer. A lot, as it turned out.
I chose Laura's Herb & Spice Garden, a popular tour located in the village of Perdmontemps in the parish of St David. The ride from my hotel to the farm is about 40 minutes driving through narrow roads in the lush countryside, inhaling the clean, fresh, fragrant air as we made our way through the hills.
Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted by our guide Laureen Francis, who has been working at the garden for 15 years, and her knowledge of the garden's flora is encyclopedic. She wasted no time in jumping into the tour.
Our first lesson was on nutmeg, also called Grenada gold. It was first brought to the island in 1844 from Indonesia and the spice has flourished on the island over the decades, with it at one point, being the world's number two supplier of nutmeg.
While a pinch of grated nutmeg is well known throughout the Caribbean as a delicious, spicy flavour for egg nog, rum punches, puddings, and porridges, Grenadians get very creative with nutmeg. They use it to make a mouth-watering nutmeg ice cream, salad dressing and as a savoury seasoning for white rice (mixed with cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, and annatto). Laureen also informed us that nutmeg spray is an excellent pain reliever for back, joint and arthritis. It as also the active ingredient in Vicks Vapor Rub.
But always use just a little nutmeg in cooking or flavouring will make you high, and if ingested in large quantities, becomes a hallucinogen.
Mace is a popular seasoning that is a byproduct of nutmeg. It is the mesh-like wrapping that covers the nutmeg. When dried, the colour changes from red to orange-yellow and it elevates the flavour of soups, sauces, stews, pickles, and seafood. Some cooks also use mace for the lovely colour it brings to dishes like shrimp and lobster.
Next up was Bay Leaf - an aromatic leaf used in stews, spiced vinegars, soups, and gravies. The leaves can be used either fresh or dried. Caribbean grandmothers know that Bay Leaves give a unique flavour to cornmeal porridge, and they can surely turn a regular pot of oxtail into a mouth-watering gourmet delight. Bay leaves are said to be good for stomach ulcers, flu, and bronchitis. Fresh leaves are also used as an insect repellent.
Many of us use cloves on Christmas ham, but how many of us could identify cloves on a tree? This is a dried, flavoured flower bud that can be used whole or ground at home to season sausages, meats, pies, fish, and preserves. Grenadians use it on turtle meat, and our guide pointed out that dentists regularly use the clove oil for toothaches and extractions.
Cinnamon trees are all over the garden. Internationally, Cinnamon sticks are a popular household spice which comes from the layer underneath the bark of the tree. When they are dried, the sticks curl and are then bottled for flavouring hot beverages like chocolate, cocoa, alcoholic drinks and fruit juices. Ground cinnamon is also widely used in pastries, fruit cakes, cookies, and sweet potato puddings. In recent times, the cinnamon tea has become popular and it is reputed to help with weight loss, fever, and controlling diabetes.
At least four types of thyme are found in Laura's garden. First there is the regular market thyme we all know. Then there is Panadol thyme that is used as a seasoning, but also used as a cure for headaches, especially among locals who are unable to swallow tablets. Another version, Guyana thyme, is used for seasoning seafood. Big thyme, with its huge leaves, bears no resemblance to the regular thyme but the aroma is similar and it is mostly used to season beef and pork dishes. It is also used as a chest decongestant for infants.
The vanilla vine is one of the most fragrant plants in the garden, and one of the most popular flavours worldwide. It is a member of the orchid family and it needs to grow on a tree for support. After about nine months, the vine gets to full maturity and if the blooms are pollinated, they produce a fruit with seeds from where the essential oil is extracted. In the Caribbean, vanilla is used in mixed drinks like soursop, in pastries, and in Christmas fruit cake. Some chefs add a splash of vanilla in their wet sugar lemonade. Vanilla is said to protect the liver and is loaded with antioxidants. The flavouring is also credited with having anti-inflammatory properties.
Tamarind is, of course, the brown, tart fruit encased in a pod, and its pulp is heavily used by gourmet chefs the world over as a base for gravy, soups, stews, meats, and especially steak and oxtail. Tamarind can be found all over Grenada. In the kitchen, it is combined with papaya to create a hot sauce that is used on salads as well as on meats - perhaps the Grenadian equivalent of the Jamaican Pickapappa sauce. Tamarind is said to be rich in vitamins and minerals, and it is used to reduce cholesterol, bile and some stomach disorders.
Two plants are grown in Laura's garden that are used exclusively as medicinal teas. One is periwinkle, or old maid, and the other is senna pod. Periwinkle is used for the treatment of diabetes. The senna pod seeds come from a plant bearing a beautiful yellow flower. The pods are brewed into a tea and used as an intestinal cleanser.
It is worth noting that some popular Jamaican fruits are known by different names in Grenada. So the red apple that we call Otaheite in Jamaica, Grenadians call cashew fruit. The real cashew fruit that bears the cashew nut is called kusu, Jamaican guinep is called skinup, noni is duppy soursop, green banana is called green fig and breadfruit goes by the name of cow.