Thursday, 31 August 2017


“Pepper is small in quantity and great in virtue.” - Plato   

Aframomum melegueta is a species in the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. This spice, commonly known as ossame, grains of paradise, Melegueta pepper, alligator pepper, Guinea grains, fom wisa, or Guinea pepper, is obtained from the ground seeds; it imparts a pungent, peppery flavour with hints of citrus. Although it is native to West Africa, it is also an important cash crop in the Basketo district of southern Ethiopia. The Pepper Coast (or Grain Coast) is a historical coastal region named after this commodity. 

A. melegueta is a herbaceous perennial plant native to swampy habitats along the West African coast. Its trumpet-shaped, purplish flowers develop into 5 to 7-cm long pods containing numerous small, reddish-brown seeds. The pungent, peppery taste of the seeds is caused by aromatic ketones; e.g., (6)-paradol (systematic name: 1-(4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)-decan-3-one). Essential oils, which are the dominating flavour components in the closely related cardamom, occur only in traces.

The stem at times can be short and usually shows signs of scars and fallen leaves. The average leaves are usually 35 cm in length and 15 cm wide, with a well-structured vascular system. The flowers of the herbaceous plant are described as “handsome”, aromatic, with an orange-coloured lip and rich pinkish-orange upper part. The fruits contain numerous, small, golden red-brown seeds.

Melegueta pepper is commonly used in the cuisines of West and North Africa, where it has been traditionally imported by caravan routes through the Sahara desert, and whence they were distributed to Sicily and the rest of Italy. Mentioned by Pliny as “African pepper” but subsequently forgotten in Europe, they were renamed “grains of paradise” and became a popular substitute for black pepper in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Ménagier de Paris recommends it for improving wine that “smells stale”.

In 1469, King Afonso V of Portugal granted the monopoly of trade in the Gulf of Guinea to Lisbon merchant Fernão Gomes, including the exclusive trade of Aframomum melegueta, then called “malagueta” pepper - which was granted by 100,000 real-annually in exchange for exploring 100 miles of the coast of Africa a year for five years. After Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492 and brought the first samples of Capsicum frutescens, and the name malagueta was then taken to the new chili “pepper”.

Malagueta, thanks to its low price, remained popular in Europe even after the Portuguese opened the direct maritime route to the Spice Islands around 1500. The importance of the spice is shown by the designation of the area from the St. Johns River (present day Buchanan) to Harper in Liberia as the “Grain Coast” in honour of the availability of grains of paradise. Later, the craze for the spice waned, and its uses were reduced to a flavouring for sausages and beer.

In the 18th century, its importation to Great Britain collapsed after a Parliamentary act of George III forbade its use in malt liquor, aqua vita, and cordials. In 1855, England imported about 15,000 to 19,000 lbs per year legally (duty paid). By 1880, the Encyclopædia Britannica (9th edition) was reporting, “Grains of paradise are to some extent used in veterinary practice, but for the most part illegally to give a fictitious strength to malt liquors, gin, and cordials.” 

Today, the spice is sometimes used in gourmet cuisine as a replacement for pepper, and to give unique flavours in some craft beers, gins, and Norwegian akvavit. In America, grains of paradise are starting to enjoy a slight resurgence in popularity due to their use by some well-known chefs. Alton Brown is a fan of its use, and he uses it in okra stew and his apple pie recipe on an episode of the TV cooking show "Good Eats". Grains of Paradise are also used by people on certain diets, such as a raw food diet, because they are less irritating to digestion than black pepper.

In West African folk medicine, grains of paradise are valued for their warming and digestive properties, and among the Efik people in Nigeria have been used for divination and ordeals determining guilt. The presence of the seeds in the diets of lowland gorillas seems to have some sort of medicinal properties for their cardiovascular health in the wild. As captive lowland gorillas have not had them usually available in their diets, it could be a cause of their occasionally poor cardiovascular health in zoos. A. melegueta has been introduced to the Caribbean and Latin America, where it is used in religious (voodoo) rites.

The fronds of A. melegueta in the language of flowers signify: “My ardour for you is well hidden”. A flower of the plant carries the message: “You are the source of my delight.”

This post is part of the Floral Friday Fotos meme.

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