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Devon chefs on how to add spices to Christmas foods

Spices area a magical element in festive food and drink. Photo: Getty
Spices area a magical element in festive food and drink. Photo: Getty

Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg… even the words waft over you like a special spicy spell. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without these key ingredients which bring tidings of great joy to our meat and veg, cakes and bakes, not to mention the mulled wine.

Traditional spices can mean the difference between bland and bold, adding a much-needed festive kick to all sorts of dishes.

Great British Life: Spices add a much needed festive kick to all kinds of dishes. Photo: GettySpices add a much needed festive kick to all kinds of dishes. Photo: Getty

KEEP IT SUBTLE

‘Just don’t go overboard,’ says John Dobson, head chef at Furzeleigh Mill, near Buckfastleigh (furzeleigh.co.uk). ‘You want to go for a really subtle spice so that the flavours are not overpowering. It’s important to get the right balance of flavours.’

Like many chefs in Devon, John is well practised in the art of Christmas cooking and enjoys experimenting with festive twists on kitchen staples.

John regularly adds spices such as star anise and cinnamon to his stocks at this time of year to bring a wintry warmth to his dishes.

‘I also like to use some preserved ginger in glazes for roasting joints like hams,’ he adds. ‘There are a lot of different spices you can go for but make sure you taste them all first so that you get the right blend of seasoning.’

John advises that less is definitely more. ‘Spices can be quite expensive so pick out just a few that you know you’ll want to use,’ he says. ‘You don’t want to end up buying 20 or more that you’ll need just a pinch from and the rest of the time they’ll end up sat in the cupboard.’

Great British Life: Spice up your festive bakes. Photo: Amy Oboussier Spice up your festive bakes. Photo: Amy Oboussier

GERMAN INSPIRATION

When it comes to showing some festive flair, cook Amy Oboussier looks to German baking for her inspiration. Amy is the founder of the Living Slow Cooking School (livingslow.co.uk), where she teaches people the art of modern domestic cooking from her kitchen in Crediton. Amy is running a German Christmas baking class this month and says she loves working with warming spices that pack in flavour.

‘When I think about Christmas baking and spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, I always look to German baking,’ says Amy. ‘They have a fabulous array of Christmassy bakes like stollen, lebkuchen, sweet breads and dozens of different types of gingerbread.

‘Many of these bakes can keep for weeks or months and be made in advance to avoid a mad rush of baking at a busy time.

‘They can also be posted to the loved ones you won't see in person.’

Amy says it’s a nice idea to prepare a homemade Christmas spice mix (see below) that can be added your bakes - and hot chocolate.

‘You can also make little sachets as gifts,’ she says. ‘Another very simple idea is to make masala chai. Although it’s not technically a Christmas drink, it uses all the spices we associate with Christmas and it’s warm and comforting.

‘It fills the house with a beautiful festive aroma. It's also nice to offer a non-alcoholic drink to people at such a boozy time of year.’

Great British Life: Chris Eden at Gidleigh always has mulled wine in the house at Christmas. Photo: Zbigniew Lewczak/GettyChris Eden at Gidleigh always has mulled wine in the house at Christmas. Photo: Zbigniew Lewczak/Getty

A TIPPLE STAPLE

Chris Eden is executive head chef at Michelin-starred Gidleigh Park in Chagford (gidleigh.co.uk). He says spices are the staple of his Christmas tipple(s).

‘There is always mulled wine in the house at Christmas time because my wife loves it,’ says Chris. ‘My recipe includes bay leaf, clementines, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, black peppercorns and cardamon - and we always add a drizzle of honey to sweeten.’

One important point, however…

‘Cloves are very powerful,’ says Chris. ‘How ever many you think you might need, halve it.’

Chris admits he’s also a sucker for a Bailey’s hot chocolate, adding: ‘Using a cinnamon stick to stir it is a huge win!’

Great British Life: Star anise, cardamom, coriander and cinnamon can lightly spice a braised meat for a Christmas pie or pithivier, says Daniel. Photo: Daniel TeagueStar anise, cardamom, coriander and cinnamon can lightly spice a braised meat for a Christmas pie or pithivier, says Daniel. Photo: Daniel Teague

FESTIVE FLAVOURS

Chefs Daniel Teague and Charlie Ramsdale ran the successful Cellar Door restaurant at Sharpham Vineyard for four years.

When the vineyard relocated to Stoke Gabriel, the pair decided to focus on event catering, private dining and pop-up restaurants. The Cellar Door (thecellardoordevon.com) caters for all kinds of events, from weddings to private functions.

Charlie and Daniel, who live on their smallholding in South Devon with Charlie’s mum and their young son, love adding festive flavours to bring warmth and comfort to their cooking.

‘Allspice, cloves, cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg, mace and vanilla are all classics,’ says Daniel. ‘Slightly more exotic spices such as star anise, cardamom and ground coriander have their place as well.’

Daniel suggests adding cinnamon, allspice and cloves to a bread dough along with raisins, dried fruits (cranberries, mixed peel, etc) for a festive loaf or panettone.

Star anise, cardamom, coriander and cinnamon can lightly spice a braised meat for a Christmas pie or pithivier (a type of pie). 

Vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, mace and nutmeg will bring comfort and joy to a mulled wine, port or cider. 

Daniel says it’s all about adding a dose of nostalgia.

‘How many times have you heard the phrase, “This tastes like Christmas!”?’ he says. ‘As chefs, we probably hear it more than most. The memories conjured up from that warming, earthy flavour of cinnamon and allspice stay with you for life.’  

But how much is too much?

‘This varies drastically from person to person, family to family, culture to culture,’ says Daniel. ‘The most important tip I can offer is that these flavours can be added, but rarely can they be taken away after being mixed.

‘Start small or follow a proven recipe for the baked goods. When it comes to creating your own recipes, you can always cook a small portion of the batch to see if you want to add more spice.

‘Or add it in other ways. I’ve had some great success with making garnishes, such as cinnamon ice-cream to pair with an apple tarte tatin.’ 



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