By Maria Christodoulou & Kalman Konyves

With Christmas approaching quickly, many of you are braving the cold and crowds to complete your Christmas shopping. If you do have time for a break you may enjoy one of the most popular lattes on the high street, a Chai latte. Before we go off at a tangent and start debating how much of the high street product actually deserves the name (we are very picky with our beverages here… But we do love Meera Sodha’s Massala Chai), we want you to take a minute and appreciate the star of today’s Advent Botany Blog, the Queen of Spices: Cardamom.

Cardamom, the pods of Elettaria cardamomum

The common name “cardamom” has been associated with two different plant genera: Elettaria (which includes green or true cardamom) and Amomum (which includes black cardamom). We will focus on the green cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum (L.) Maton, which is most commonly used in baking. Green cardamom is a luxury spice, considered the third most expensive spice after saffron and vanilla. Its cost is not only due to the labour-intensive collection, but also due to its transportation costs – the seed pod is bulky, but mostly empty, with a few precious seeds hidden inside. In most cases however, you only need to add a little to your dishes to give them the unique spiciness. Although green cardamom is of Asian origin, Guatemala regularly produces 2/3 of the world’s production, followed by India and Tanzania. The world consumption shows some surprising patterns – 60% of all production is consumed in India, Saudi Arabia and UAE, and 16% in Scandinavian nations.

Cardamom buns

The third in our series of the Holy Trinity of Greek festive baking (together with Mahleb and Mastic), cardamom is also an integral part of Scandinavian cuisine. Found in anything from pickling to baking, Scandinavian consumption accounts for the majority of use in Europe.

Among Arab nations, the consumption of cardamom is closely associated with coffee drinking, mixing cardamom with ground coffee prior to brewing. Arab coffee (or Turkish, or Greek coffee) is made using mostly medium-roast finely-ground coffee (think flour-level of fineness) mixed with water and cooked on the stove top in a specialised saucepan (called: Cezve/briki).

If you do want to try some at home, here is an expert video for its preparation, and you can request Turkish level grind for your selected coffee beans from one of the large high street tea and coffee merchants. Alternatively, maybe one of your local coffee shops can make one for you, for example we recommend CUP in Reading for an authentic Greek coffee – it tastes excellent even without the cardamom. Other than culinary uses, cardamom is also important in traditional medicine, in preparations to treat digestive issues, lower blood pressure, and boost immunity. More unexpectedly, cardamom was also traditionally considered an aphrodisiac, with anecdotal reports of Cleopatra burning cardamom as incense throughout her palace as a way to seduce her suitors.

Wherever you are this Christmas, don’t forget about the Queen spices, who may appear in your coffee, your mulled wine, your favourite baked good, or even your favourite pickled fish (if you have one…). Cardamom is unique, diverse, and quite rightly a spice worthy of Cleopatra.

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