Friday, January 25, 2013


This month I was intrigued by an old tradition I have been witnessing since I was a little boy. At the end of every family meal, my dad, uncles and grandfathers would partake in a ritual. The serving of the espresso or Demitasse. It was a very serious moment each week, as all attention turned to the bubbling, silver, two tiered pot on the stove. Always, as if by magic, along with the coffee and desserts, appeared the bottles of Anisette and Sambuca. I remember thinking they always looked the same, never empty, never full, as if once returned to their place in the cupboards, the 'anise' gods would come and replenish the vessels, ensuring my family a never ending supply of licorice flavored goodness.

Each of my family members had their favorite, my dad preferring Anisette, while my uncle chose the more pungent Sambuca. To a small boy, the aroma was mesmerizing, evoking images of long curly black strands of licorice that danced in my head. (Sugarplums...what sugarplums?) Sometimes, we were lucky enough to get a taste, or watch one of my uncles fill a shot glass, float a coffee bean on top and light the liquor with a match, creating that cool blue flame. I used to love that part. I've even seen my aunts or grandmother dip their finger in it and rub the gums of teething infants. Looking back now I understand why all the new babies in the family were so well behaved....!

So what is anise, or aniseed? (Not to be confused with star anise, a spice that closely resembles anise in flavor that is obtained from the star-shaped pericarp of a small native evergreen tree of southwest China.) It is related to caraway, dill, cumin and fennel, the latter sharing its licorice flavor characteristics.

Native to the Middle East.....I will digress here a second. As I take this exploration and discovery of all things culinary with you, I marvel at how many times I have started a feature on an ingredient, food, method or staple of our everyday lives that I have begun with that phrase, 'native to the Middle East'. That and 'according to Pliny the Elder.' This guy was a 1000 years ahead of Savarin and Escoffier, and he knew his food. Sorry..back to the topic...In the Middle East anise has been used as a medicine, a flavor for medicine, in soups and stews, its licorice like flavor popular in candies and its oil used in liqueurs. We are going to talk about some of the liqueurs here today but as you have come to expect, origins of a particular product are of the utmost interest and import to us here at GGM.

Ancient Romans hung Anise plants near their pillows to prevent bad dreams. They also used Anise to aid digestion and ward off epileptic attacks. Europeans use Anise in cakes, cookies and sweet breads. Colonists in the New World used it as a medicinal crop too. Here comes my Pliny reference..."According to Pliny the Elder," anise was used to help you sleep, chewed with alexanders, left, (tasting similar to celery) and a little honey in the morning to make you approachable by getting rid of your bad breath. They also used to mix it with wine as a remedy for scorpion stings, but I'm pretty sure scorpion incidents are on the decline and most of us can stick to drinking and cooking with it.

In Indian cuisine, no distinction is made between anise and fennel, and I was at first confused and mistakenly thought them one and the same for this very reason. Therefore, the same name (saunf) is usually given to both of them. Some use the term patli (thin) saunf or velayati (foreign) saunf to distinguish anise from fennel.

In the UK, anise has been in use since the fourteenth century, and has been cultivated in English gardens from the middle of the sixteenth century, but it is grown on a commercial scale in southern Russia, Bulgaria, Germany, Malta, Spain, Italy, North Africa and Greece which produce large quantities. It has also been introduced into India and South America. The cultivated plant being considerably larger than the wild one.

In Virgil's time, anise was used as a spice. Mustacae, a spiced cake of the Romans introduced at the end of a rich meal to prevent indigestion, consisted of meal with anise, cummin and other aromatics. Such a cake was sometimes brought in at the end of a marriage feast and is, perhaps, the origin of the UK's spiced wedding cake.

In Germany, many cakes have an aniseed flavoring, and anise is also used as a flavoring for soups. It is largely employed in France, Spain, Italy and South America in the preparation of cordial liqueurs. The liqueur Anisette added to cold water on a hot summer's day is very common and a refreshing drink. It is also one of the herbs that was supposed to avert the 'Evil Eye.'

Anise Based Liqueurs

Clear in appearance, it is produced and consumed in the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern African countries, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. Arak is usually not drunk straight, but is mixed in approximately 1/3 arak to 2/3 water, and ice is then added. Arak is usually served with mezza, which could include dozens of small dishes, which many arak drinkers prefer as accompaniment rather than main courses.

A sweet liqueur made by macerating 16 different seeds and plants and blending the maceration with a neutral spirit and sugar syrup. Anisette should not be confused with pastis, which is made using star anise (the fruit of the evergreen, Chinese star anise tree) rather than aniseed (the seed of the Mediterranean anise plant, a member of the parsley family). Anisette diluted with water is generally clear, while undiluted pastis is transparent yellow. It should be served in the manner you like it. Room temperature is preferred by some, others like it chilled.

Their exclusive recipe, handed down from generation to generation, uses green anise from the high plains of the Mediterranean and more than 10 other plants, fruits and spices, to create a blend of natural aromas and flavors of the South and the Orient. Green anise is the basic ingredient of Anisette; it comes from the sunny and windy Mediterranean basin, where the climate and soil are particularly well suited to its cultivation. Ten other rigorously selected aromatic plants give this 100% natural liqueur a subtle, delicate and smooth flavor.

Absinthe originated in the canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. It achieved great popularity as an alcoholic drink in late 19th- and early 20th-century France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers.Although it is sometimes mistakenly called a liqueur, absinthe is not bottled with added sugar and is therefore classified as a spirit. New Orleans also has a historical connection to absinthe consumption. The city has a prominent landmark called the Old Absinthe House, located on Bourbon Street. Originally called the Absinthe Room, opened in 1874 by a Catalan Cayetano Ferrer.

The Absinthe Fountain

Traditionally, absinthe is prepared by placing a sugar cube on top of a specially designed slotted spoon and then placing the spoon on the glass which has been filled with a shot of absinthe. Ice-cold water is then poured or dripped over the sugar cube so that the water is slowly and evenly displaced into the absinthe, typically 1 part absinthe and 3 to 5 parts water. During this process, components not soluble in water (mainly those from anise, fennel, and star anise) come out of solution and cloud the drink. The resulting milky opalescence is called the louche (Fr. opaque or shady.) Releasing these components allows herbal aromas and flavors to "blossom" or "bloom" and brings out subtleties originally over-powered by the anise. This is often referred to as "The French Method."

Some claim it may date back in one form or another to ancient times. Its precursor possibly is tsipouro, a drink distilled throughout the Byzantine Empire and continued throughout Ottoman times.
Traditionally, Tsipouro is said to have been the pet project of a group of 14th century monks living in a monastery on holy Mount Athos. One version of it is flavored with Anise. It is this version that eventually came to be called Ouzo.

Interestingly, all the beverages here, while sharing the licocrice like characteristics of anise, are quite unique in and of themselves. Regardless of your personal preference, if you are a lover of licorice, then these are the cordials and aperitifs for you. Enjoy!

Bon Appetit,


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