Two spices worth growing in your garden are caraway and cumin. According to folklore, they have more than just culinary value.
Need to keep errant lovers from straying? Feed them caraway seeds. Our medieval ancestors swore by it, a notion stemming from the belief that caraway stopped the theft of anything that contained its seeds.
Pop seeds inside your prized possessions (your jewellery box, iPod case or partner's mouth) and the theory was nobody would come near them.
Caraway (Carum carvi) has a long history of folklore as well as medicinal uses (relieving flatulence, indigestion, colic and sore throats), but these days it's typically used to flavour food. All parts of the caraway plant are edible, but it's the seeds, with their nutty, anise flavour, that are most commonly used.
A biennial, seeds sown in spring or early summer will flower and seed in the second year. However if you sow your seed in autumn, you will get flowers in the same summer. It does make sense to sow the seeds in autumn.
If you collect your own seeds, which will invariably be in autumn, they are best sown fresh after harvesting.
You can then do as Caesar did and harvest the roots, which taste a little like parsnip. Caesar apparently had his men mix caraway root with milk to make bread when food was in short supply.
Sow caraway seeds directly into the garden in a sunny spot and cover lightly with soil. Space seeds about 20 centimetres apart. You might like to cover young seedlings with an upturned hanging basket, minus the lining, to protect the emerging shoots from birds, which like to peck out the seedlings.
Plants tolerate light frosts and grow in light shade if a spot in full sun is unavailable, although the best flavour develops in full sun.
Harvest the seed heads before the first seeds fall. Place the cut heads upside down in a paper bag, then hang the bags in a warm, airy place and allow the seeds to drop inside the bag. The seeds can then be stored in an airtight container.
To get started, buy seeds from Kings Seeds or look in the herb section of your local garden centre.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) has a lot in common with caraway. It helps reduce flatulence and colic, and like caraway, it's noted for increasing one's appetite.
Cumin seeds resemble caraway seeds too, both being of the Apiaceae family.
However, the seeds of cumin are larger, slightly lighter in colour and hotter to taste. Because of its more bitter taste, caraway is generally used instead of cumin for medicinal purposes. Cumin is used in curries and Mexican cuisine and, of course, the Dutch cheese Leyden.
Cumin is an annual that grows to a grand height of 20cm. Start it indoors and plant it out once the soil has warmed up. Keep a cloche on hand for when cold nights are expected.
If you want it to do well though, take heed of Greek philosopher Theophrastus' advice: "When people are sowing it they must curse and slander it if they want it to be healthy and prolific."
Plant it in a sunny spot in well-drained soil, or grow in pots. The soil does not need to be rich. In fact, this is generally the case with most herbs, and plants grown for their seeds.
Water plants well. Cumin likes moist soil, although it won't tolerate wet feet.
Cumin produces flowers in midsummer, followed by seedpods. The seeds can be harvested once the pods turn brown. But keep an eye on individual plants, as they don't tend to ripen all at the same time. If the seedpods crack when pressed, they are ready to be harvested.
Let the pods dry, then rub them to release the seeds. The seeds must be thoroughly dry before being stored in an airtight container.
Black cumin, also known as nutmeg flower (Nigella sativa), is from a different family altogether. It produces black poppy-like seeds that have a peppery nutmeg taste when crushed. They are used in cooking and baking, in particular curries, vegetables and breads such as naan.
They must have played an important role in Egyptian history as the seeds were found in Tutankhamen's tomb.
They have been used medicinally the world over, for treating headaches, toothache and nasal congestion, and for stomach and intestinal health, among other things. There has been a great deal of interest in this plant recently as various studies have mentioned its anti-cancer potential.
It is an annual, grown in the home garden probably more for its unusual flowers than anything else. The seedpods can be harvested to get the black seeds.
When the seedpods are dry, the top of the pod begins to split open. Snip off the pods at this stage and remove the seeds - they should be black, not green. Leave them to dry then store them in an airtight container.
To get started, seeds for cumin and black cumin are available from Kings Seeds.
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