What is Allspice?

What is Allspice?

By Gillian Ehrman

The sweet, pungent smell of plants on this hot and humid day in Cambridge takes me back to a hot September afternoon in Deep East Texas, walking around my university's gardens. I remember Carolina Allspice from a past plant walk; I close my eyes, breathe in, and can smell the almost cinnamon-like bark now crushed lifeless in my hands. Is there a connection between Carolina allspice and Jamaican allspice? Well, readers, unlike the plant that Jamaican allspice (Pimenta dioica) comes from, Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) is a deciduous shrub, and the berries are poisonous when eaten. The power of association piqued my curiosity. Will you join me on this deep dive into Jamaican allspice? 

The first written record of allspice occurred in Columbus's journal from his voyage to the Americas in 1492. He was on a mission to find the illustrious peppercorn vine, Piper nigrum, a rare and expensive commodity back in the day. Thinking he had struck gold, Columbus was greatly disappointed when he returned to Spain with the far less valuable allspice. The Spanish gave these pepper-like berries the botanical name Pimenta, the Spanish word for "pepper." But enough about Christopher Columbus, let's answer some questions about the allspice tree. What is, in fact, this spice called 'allspice' and how does it grow? 

Allspice is the dried, unripe fruit of Pimenta dioica, a tropical evergreen native to Jamaica, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, and Southern Mexico. Here at Curio Spice Co. we source our allspice berries from Guatemala and occasionally Jamaica. The bark is a smooth gray/silver color and intensely aromatic. The sensation of the allspice tree's bark is similar to the spectacular smell of the bark of Carolina allspice. This is the only similarity between both plants. It is part of the Myrtle family. Clove, guava, and eucalyptus are other notable members of this plant family. Allspice trees are dioecious, meaning the male and female reproductive organs are on separate trees. The female flowers provide the fruit. When allspice trees bloom with their clusters of tiny white flowers, the warm, clove-like perfume in the air is one of the most beautiful aromas imaginable. The first harvest begins when the female tree reaches eight years old and can continue bearing fruit for about 100 years. 

The fruit is picked before ripening, when the berries have their full aroma due to the volatile oil's eugenol, methyl eugenol, and beta-caryophyllene. The berries are then sun-dried or machine dried. Fresh Allspice berries have no culinary use, even in their native lands. The allspice berry is dark brown when cured and dried with a slightly reddish hue. When ground allspice berries release distinctive aromatic notes of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. 

Jamaica's native Arawak and Taino peoples used the berries to flavor and preserve meat, which they smoked over wooden-framed barbecues. Maroon cuisine, such as jerk-spiced meat, amalgamates three distinct cooking styles from Spanish, Taino, and freed West African slaves. An essential ingredient in this cuisine is allspice, thyme, scotch bonnet chilies, and ginger. Jerk is a representation of the Jamaican people's triumph of the militant tendency over an oppressive ruling class. This fusion of cultures through jerk is an example of how food has brought people together for centuries. Our friend, Tamika Francis from Food & Folklore, pays homage to global food traditions. I highly suggest checking out this link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQr5iGFu2jI) where she is featured on WBUR CitySpace cooking up a hearty Rastafarian Ital Stew made with veggies, spices including allspice, and creamy coconut milk.

Allspice is used in both sweet and savory applications, its uses span from cake and cookies to seafood and red meat. It is famously an ingredient in Scandinavian marinated raw herring and delightfully complements pickles, pâtés, and smoked meats. The volatile oil eugenol found in allspice is found in cloves and is surprisingly found in basil too. As it is summertime, I suggest you all go to your herb garden, rip off a piece of basil, and crush it with your fingers. Do you smell that clove-like aroma? Nature is full of surprises for the curious that are willing to search! No wonder why allspice pairs so well with tomatoes. I have included one of my all-time favorite Curio recipes for mushroom pâté. Unsurprisingly the secret ingredient is…allspice. Also included are links to some fantastic products and blends from Curio which contain allspice, I highly suggest checking them out.

Traditional Pickling Spice Creole Spice Sēti Berbere

Makes about 3 cups
1/2 teaspoon allspice berries
2 clove buds
2 tablespoons oil
1 cup diced shallots
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
4 tablespoons (half stick) butter, cut into chunks
1 1/2 pounds mushrooms (any variety or a mix) cleaned, stems trimmed, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons Filipino Adobo
1/2 teaspoon dried French tarragon
1/2 teaspoon dried Sicilian thyme
1/4 cup mezcal
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
8 ounces cream cheese
Sea salt and black pepper

Grind the allspice berries and cloves to a powder using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. 

Put the oil and shallots into a large skillet set over medium-high heat. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are tender and translucent. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about a minute longer.

Add the mushrooms to the pan, followed by the butter. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms release their juices. Sprinkle the Filipino Adobo over the mushrooms, then add the tarragon and thyme, crumbling them between your fingers. Add half the ground allspice-clove powder, several grinds of black pepper, and a big pinch of salt. Cook until the mushrooms are very tender, browned, and glazed-looking.

Add the mezcal and stir to scrape up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the skillet. Cook until the mezcal has evaporated, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Taste and add more salt if needed.

Transfer the mushroom mixture to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade. Let the mushrooms cool for 5-10 minutes.

Pulse a few times until the mushrooms are ‘minced.’ Add the cream cheese in chunks and another big pinch of the allspice-clove powder, then process until the mixture is smooth.

Taste and add more salt, black pepper, or lemon juice as needed. Transfer the pâté to a lidded container. Cover and chill for at least two hours so the flavors can meld and the pâté can firm up.

Gambrelle, F., Boussahba, S., & Michalon, M.-F. (2008). allspice. In The flavor of spices (pp. 42–42). essay, Flammarion.
Hemphill, I., & Hemphill, K. (2014). allspice. In The Spice & Herb Bible (pp. 61–67). essay, Robert Rose.
Lawson, J. (2008). allspice. In The spice bible: Essential information and more than 250 recipes using spices, spice mixes, and Spice Pastes (pp. 184–185). essay, Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
O’Connell, J. (2018). allspice. In The book of spice: From anise to zedoary (pp. 24–30). essay, W.W. Norton and Company. 


  • Susan: September 13, 2023

    Hi, Amy and Terry. Susan from the Curio kitchen, here.
    Thanks for the love! We too wish we posted more often — but we’re a pretty small crew and we craft most of the blog posts ourselves, in between other myriad tasks. It’s so lovely to hear that the posts are landing and being read. We adore talking spices!
    Terry, let us know how you make out with the pate. Hope you like it as much as we do!
    Also, try adding a few cracked allspice berries when you make stocks or chicken soup. They add something special.
    Happy cooking, you two!

  • Amy: September 13, 2023

    Nice blog posts. I wish you would update them more often.

  • Terri Ehrman: August 11, 2023

    I loved this blog about allspice. I can’t wait to try the mushroom pate

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