The Oldest Spice

A few weeks ago, I was making choucroute, a German-influenced French specialty of the Alsace region, when I realized I didn’t have any juniper berries. (After all, who has juniper berries?) I emailed pal Ernie, who would be joining us for dinner that night to see if he might have some, in addition to caraway seeds and whole clove.

“I have caraway seeds,” he replied, “But I have no idea how old they are. They’ve been in here a long time.”

Old spices from my spice drawer (l to r): Chinese powdered ginger, herbes de Provence (who ever uses herbes de Provence!??), something so old I don't even know what it is, some Jamaican curry a friend brought me back from Jamaica when we were in our 20s, and ancient saffron from my dad's friend Pierre

Old spices from my spice drawer (l to r): Chinese powdered ginger, herbes de Provence, something so old I don’t even know what it is, some Jamaican curry a friend brought me back from Jamaica when we were in our 20s, and ancient saffron from my dad’s friend Pierre

I then queried neighbors Chris and Glennis to see if they had any juniper berries, and was pleased when Chris responded that they did.

“I tried to think of someone who might have them,” I told him, “And the only person I could think of would be my mom. And they would probably be the same ones I used to stare at on the spice rack when I was a child, in the faded green Spice Islands jar.”

“Yes!!!” Chris replied, “Those are the ones!”

Sure enough, when I went next door to borrow a small handful, Chris produced the aged jar, a shade of green that cannot be reproduced, but only comes of time and fading — the letters on the front in a font not used since the 1970s. “I have no idea if they’re still good,” he said.

“I don’t think they even make juniper berries anymore!” I offered.

Every spice shelf, cupboard and pantry has them — the rarely used spices that stand enviously, unmoved for years, while their neighbors come and go. Indeed, long after the garlic salt and chili powder have been emptied, the marjoram, the caraway seeds remain.

My father once passed along a jar of saffron given him by his friend, Pierre, a corpulent French chef who died in dramatic fashion of a heart attack on an airplane between Bordeaux and Amsterdam. “He said it never goes bad.”

Because they are dried, spices don’t so much go bad, as slowly fade. I would need a mighty pinch of Pierre’s antique saffron to properly flavor a paella, for example. I also have a bag of star anise given me by a friend a decade or so ago. While not as pungent, perhaps, as last season’s crop, it still does well flavoring a braised pork belly. I use three pods instead of one. You might say it has reached it’s half life. And those aren’t even the oldest spices in my collection.

Over our dinner of choucroute, we began to wonder who might have, in fact, the oldest jar of spice. Ernie’s caraway seeds and Chris and Glennis’ juniper berries were certainly candidates, as were my own large container of saffron and bag of star anise. Shuffling through my various spice drawers, I found other relics of once living plants — a forgotten and never-used jar of herbes de Provence (who ever uses herbes de Provence?); several jars of different spices my friend Peri had given me back when I lived in my Santa Monica apartment (at least 15 years ago) which no longer smelled so I couldn’t tell what they were; some things of unknown provenance that I never would’ve had any idea what to do with in the first place like Chinese powdered ginger, cream of tartar, “Florida seasoning” and something called ground galanga.

But I was sure there would be other claimants to the title of oldest out there. Certainly my mother, who never throws anything in her kitchen away, would have some long-past-their-prime spices in her kitchen. However, there was unquestionably one man who would have spices older than any other: my father. Not only had he not cooked in the past decade; even in my teens, when I was first cooking, I remember there being jars on that spice shelf that probably predated my birth. And it was entirely possible those very jars were still there!

The next time I went out to my dad’s house to pick him up for lunch, I decided to investigate. A wave of nostalgia washed over me as I approached the rack — there they were! The spices of my childhood! The first thing to catch my eye were the Spice Islands jars — those were the newer ones when I was young, the ones I actually cooked with. Mixed in among them were the ones that brought me way, way back — the pale sage green labels and groovy fonts of the Schilling jars. There was mace and orange peel, poppy seed, grayish parsley flakes, powdered horseradish. Some were so old the color and names had been brushed away, leaving only a silver under-label and the unknown remains of whatever had once been living inside.

My father's spice rack — spices from my childhood!!!

My father’s spice rack — spices from my childhood!!!

My dad’s kitchen is, in general, something of a culinary time capsule. There are dried pastas in jars that have been there decades, dusty canned goods in the cupboard from companies that ceased operations eons before. I like to imagine civilization being wiped out by some catastrophe (likely of our own making), and a race of more advanced beings coming upon the ruins of our world several millennia from now. They would find my dad’s spice rack and wonder what sort of tinctures were held within these faded jars, the voice of my father (“They say those never go bad!”) still echoing through the rafters.

To paraphrase the Capital One advertising campaign, “What’s in your cupboard!?” I bet if you looked inside that drawer or spice rack, you’d find some pretty old spices, too!

If you happen to stumble upon some antediluvian juniper berries, caraway seeds and whole cloves that you’d like to get rid of once and for all, and feel like opening some lager and inviting friends for a big pile of sauerkraut and sausages, here’s what to do:

*   *   *

Choucroute
serves 4 – 6

6 oz. pork belly (or salt pork)
1/2 lb. smoked sausage (such as polska kielbasa)
1/2 lb. bratwurst or other mild pork sausage
1/2 lb. boudin, weisswurst or other white sausage
1/2 lb. pork chop on the bone
1 slice bacon
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 tbsp. duck fat, goose fat, lard or vegetable oil
1 32-oz jar sauerkraut
1 cup white wine
1 lb. small red potatoes
6 juniper berries
6 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
salt & freshly ground pepper

In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, render the bacon over medium heat until beginning to crisp. Remove from pan. Add 2 tablespoons duck fat (or other oil) and chopped onion to pan, and cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until translucent.

Push the onions over to the side of the pan, add pork belly and pork chops to the pan and brown on each side. Add the smoked sausage, sauerkraut, white wine and spices, and bring to a simmer. Lower heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 45 minutes.

Add remaining sausages and potatoes, and cook for an additional 20 minutes. Remove lid, cook for 5 more minutes. Remove from heat. Remove sausages from choucroute and slice each into two or three pieces. Return to choucroute. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve: either pile some choucroute on each of 4 to 6 dinner plates, being sure each plate gets some pork, sausage and potatoes. Or mound on a large serving platter and let each guest scoop some onto their own plate.

Serve with German rye bread or a french baguette and butter, some grainy mustard and a lager such as Kronenberg.

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15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michelle
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 01:06:13

    Now, you’ve really made me laugh. My mother’s spices look much like your father’s. Oh, and by the way, next time you’re looking, we actually have some (relatively new) juniper berries. 🙂

    Reply

  2. Jessamine in PDX
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 02:48:13

    I have fresh juniper berries (bought within the few months!) but I will admit to some seriously suspicious spice activity as well. In fact, your Jamaican Island blend made me giggle because we have a bottle (never opened) called “Jamaican Me Crazy.” Yeah… And the whole allspice isn’t exactly flying out of here either.

    Reply

  3. glennis
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 03:25:10

    This is hilarious!! In fact, I think those juniper berries travelled down here to Topanga from Seattle in an Allied Moving Van in 1996. But when I cleaned out my Mom’s house in Texas in 2008, I swear I threw out some old cans of McCormack spices that I remember from her New Jersey house in 1988.

    Reply

  4. glennis
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 03:26:33

    Oh, and if you need juniper berries? Try gin instead.

    Reply

  5. Mom
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 04:24:09

    So interesting. i actually have to remind myself to keep star anise in stock. I use it always in a broiled salmon I love and we eat a lot of salmon. I always have juniper berries as nothing else will do when you need them but that’s not often, caraway I use a lot but only in winter. I am always out of cumin and I buy California chili powder in the Mexican store in bulk and my hot chili powders whenever I’m in New Mexico. My friend brings herbs of Provence every summer from Provence and I’m always out when I get the new batch. Try it in pea soup in place of Thyme.

    Reply

  6. thefatcook
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 04:51:39

    I have all above spices fresh within the past year. Drop by my house next time.

    Reply

  7. Conor Bofin
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 07:04:26

    My sister in Norway sends juniper berries over with my Mum when she returns to Ireland. I use them to help flavour my venison dishes in winter. Delicious.
    Every couple of years, I cull my spices. One has to be brutal.

    Reply

  8. Ernie
    Apr 25, 2013 @ 23:48:18

    I feel privileged to be in the running for the oldest spice! I think my can of “Old Bay” wins hands down!

    Reply

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