(also known as pimento, Jamaica pepper, English pepper, myrtle pepper)
Though not a member of the pepper family and not particularly peppery, allspice played a key role in the early Spanish explorers’ quest for pepper, and as such, deserves a mention. It is unique in that it is the only spice grown almost exclusively in the western hemisphere, and, as a pepper look-alike, it lies at the heart of the confusion between peppercorns and chillies.
As most people know, Columbus’s voyage of 1492 culminated in the discovery of the New World rather than a westerly route to the Spice Islands. The story goes that on reaching Cuba, Columbus showed a bag of peppercorns to the natives and they, in turn, pointed him towards an allspice tree. Thinking he had discovered the much-coveted pepper he was after, Columbus named the tree and its berries pimienta, the Spanish word for pepper. (Adding to the confusion, he, and fellow Spanish explorers, referred to all natives as ‘Indians’ regardless of the country in which they were encountered.) Pimienta was eventually corrupted to pimento, although nowadays this is a term more often used in reference to the leaf rather than the berry.
The name allspice reflects the complex flavour of the berry, said to resemble a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper. The clove element is unmistakable since both cloves and allspice contain the essential oil eugenol. There is certainly a hint of pepper, but cinnamon and nutmeg are barely obvious in the whole berry, although slightly more so in the ground spice. There is further confusion over allspice and ‘mixed spice’, a ground spice blend used in baking. The blend includes allspice, but contains other sweet spices as well.
Allspice is indigenous to Central America and the West Indies, particularly Jamaica – home to the best quality and quantity, and the reason for yet another name, ‘Jamaica pepper’. Unlike true pepper (Piper nigrum), allspice grows on a bushy evergreen tree rather than a climbing vine, and the flowers and fruits grow in clusters rather than spikes. Once dried though, the fruits look very similar to peppercorns albeit more buxom and with fewer wrinkles.
The trees are a magnificent sight, particularly in summer when they are blanketed in aromatic white flowers. They grow in the wild in coastal regions of Jamaica, but, since allspice is a major export, they are also cultivated in plantations. The plantations were traditionally called ‘walks’; to take a ‘pimento walk’ was to stroll through a plantation. Botanist Patrick Browne wrote in 1755: ‘nothing can be more delicious than the odour of these walks, when the trees are in bloom, as well as other times; the friction of the leaves and small branches even in a gentle breeze diffusing a most exhilarating scent’.
Europe started importing allspice soon after discovery of the New World but the spice never really caught on. Despite the distinctive flavour and large berries, people simply did not covet it in the same way as pepper and other spices from the exotic east. And in the years to come, New World products such as coffee and tea became the latest ‘must-haves’ and eclipsed any hope of allspice achieving the same status. That said, allspice had and still has its loyal fans.