I shop for groceries at an international farmers’ market. Their spice section takes up an entire wall, and unlike the American couple-of-tablespoons-in-a-can supermarket product, their spices come in containers of four ounces or more. And they’re reasonably priced; sensory travel at bargain rates!
One spice I hadn’t experienced much before I discovered this place is cardamom. They sell lots, because my city has a large Indian population. A most exotic and exalted flavoring, it is one of the most expensive, too – only saffron and vanilla pods cost more.
In my exploration of perfume notes, I come across cardamom all the time. It’s in Ormonde Jayne’s “Man” and “Woman,” two of the most gorgeous fragrances out there. Jean-Claude Ellena used it in his India-themed Un Jardin Apres La Mousson of course, but it’s also in his Eau Parfumee au The Vert. It’s in L’Artisan’s Timbuktu and Chanel’s Pour Monsieur, Donna Karan’s Chaos and Malle’s Cologne Bigarade. Basenotes lists 331 scents that use it (and I’m sure there are more).
A little research opens all the history books, which is so often the case with spices. Cardamom, a member of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, is hugely ancient, so ancient that its root word is hard to define. The early Egyptians used it as a dentifrice. In Asia, it’s still used medicinally, for problems of the mouth, throat and lungs. The Vikings brought it home from Constantinople, where it is now a key ingredient of aquavit. The Arabs called it an aphrodisiac, and it’s still brewed with coffee throughout the Middle East. The Greeks and Romans made perfumes with it.
There are three forms: green is the most common, and is harvested in India. Not much makes it out for export, because it’s so common a food ingredient there. What we get in the U.S. is usually grown in Central America. The black form, which is a little more smoky and camphorous than the green, is part of garam masala – and also shows up in Dolce & Gabana’s “D + G By For Men” and Paco Rabanne’s “Black XS.” There’s also a white form, used mostly in Scandinavia for baking. And it’s a common ingredient of the spiced tea masala chai.
So what does pure cardamom smell and taste like? Primary research time:
The pod, when chewed, is papery and tough. I can see why it was once used as a toothbrush. The black seeds inside contain the flavor. I chewed some of them and...man. There’s sweetness, quickly eclipsed by bitter lemon rind-like taste. Then comes menthol and camphor, a greenish Eucalyptus, and a slight numbing of the tongue. Smelling the crushed pods and seeds reveals the camphor, and when deeply inhaled it cools the nasal passages.
I left the crushed pods out overnight. Their scent this morning had a fruitiness that wasn’t there initially. It had mellowed, become more aromatic, but without the overwhelming Vicks Vap-O-Rub-like camphor of the just-crushed seeds.
It was Eau Parfumee au The Verte that renewed my interest in fine perfumery, which had been more or less dormant for years prior to that. I had no idea what the ingredients were and no desire to find out then; I just knew I loved the perfume. Smelling it now, with a mortar full of crushed cardamom pods alongside, I think: of course. Cardamom.
Perfumery is where we rediscover the world.
For a dessert from “Gourmet” that features cardamom as well as other perfume essences like oranges, bergamot, black tea, dried fruit (and vanilla, if you serve it over ice cream) called “Oranges and Prunes in Cardamom Tea Syrup” follow this link:
Cardamom photo by Kelly Cline.