We have all been there: you have just tasted something really good, and are sitting there with a furrowed brow trying to figure out what the ingredients are. Either aloud or thinking to yourself, you say something like, “well, I can taste some cinnamon and, maybe, some nutmeg…possibly some pepper.” Though you are definitely tasting those flavours, more likely that not, none of these particular spices are actually in the dish you are enjoying.
What you are tasting is probably the dried, unripe berries of the Pimenta dioica, commonly known as Allspice. First encountered in Jamaica by Europeans during Columbus’ second expedition to the New World in 1493, the spice was initially named by Dr. Diego Álvarez Chanca.
Instead of using the Spanish name for the confusingly-flavoured spice, which was Jamaican pimento, our English name for it derives from the fact that its flavour profile contains the tastes of multiple different spices – primarily cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and pepper – or, to put it another way, “all spices,” which was later compounded to form one word. Indeed, the first mention of the spice in written English, which occurs in Robert Burton’s 1621 work, The Anatomy of Melancholy, speaks of, “Ambergreese, nutmegs, and all spice.”
Initially, it was near impossible to cultivate the tree itself anywhere else, due to Spain attempting to keep a monopoly on the trade and the inability to grow the seeds at another place; however, with England breaking the Spanish hold on the West Indies and the correct process of germinating seeds, allspice growth and production soon spread rapidly.
Currently, in addition to still being produced in Jamaica, allspice is also produced on other Caribbean islands, Mexico, and Central America, and in other tropical and semi-tropical regions around the world. In usage, while many will be familiar with the obvious addition of it in Jamaican jerk seasoning, it can also be found in expected places, like desserts, curries, sausage spices, and Mediterranean/Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as unexpected places, like Cincinnati-style chili, personal care products (it has a weak antimicrobial essential oil), and- if you can handle it- an allspice liqueur called “pimento dram.”