Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

FORKLORE

Unspices

February 22, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

These days, some people worry about microscopic insect parts in their spices. Until this century, the worry was whether you were getting the spices at all. Unscrupulous dealers would cut spices with plausible-looking plant products--or in the case of peppercorns, with mouse droppings. Connecticut gets its nickname, the Nutmeg State, from the traveling salesmen who sold unsuspecting housewives "nutmegs" carved out of wood.

In fact, before it took on the meaning "to misrepresent," the verb "to garble" was a technical term meaning to pick the dross and adulterants out of commodities such as spices. As late as the 1930s, England had an official known as a garbler who was empowered to condemn batches of adulterated spices.

Saffron, which has always been the most expensive spice, was naturally the one most adulterated. The preferred adulterant was Carthamus tinctorius, otherwise known as safflower (it was only about 30 years ago that people decided the safflower plant made a valuable cooking oil). It gives much the same color as saffron but little aroma.

By the time the Arabic language appeared on the world stage, saffron was so often adulterated that the original Semitic word for saffron, kurkum, had come to mean safflower. The Arabs were forced to coin a new word, za'fara^n, for true saffron, and that's the word most languages use today--even on those little cellophane packets of safflower sold as azafran.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|