I’ve just received a tiny, treasure box through the post today, brimming full with luscious spices in a range of colours lifted right off the back of the mighty Uluru itself.
I was intrigued by the sound of some recipes featuring sumac as a spice recently printed in the Toronto Star, so I charged off in pursuit of a jar. My head was positively spinning with questions. Sumac! That’s a tree, isn’t it? Is the spice derived from the bark like cinnamon, or is it a fruit or seed-based flavouring? Could it really be a foodstuff? I’ve got very clear memories of the dire warnings that Mum would randomly issue as we headed out of doors as children and there was definitely one that featured the sumac. “Never eat the berries of the sumac!” she would admonish our retreating figures. Interests piqued, we’d troop back to her side, the requisite chorus of questions on our lips. “Because they are POISONOUS” she would add ponderously, fixing us with a dire look. Well, that was enough to put the wind up our tiny, developing minds. There was poison out there, a deadly weapon growing in the wild, practically at our fingertips, and it must be packaged in a fairly attractive form if we were being warned away from it. Could a person ingest one accidentally, thinking it was a harmless raspberry? Was there an antidote if someone did manage to eat one? If the berries were crushed, could the resulting juice be applied to a thorn and flung blow-dart style into the neck of an unsuspecting enemy? All were pressing questions and ones that occupied my brother and his mates all summer long, as they plundered garden after garden in their struggle to discover the elusive berry.
Sadly, (or fortunately, as the case may be, if you happened to be a person of interest to my brother’s little gang of hooligans) this particular warning of Mum’s wasn’t accompanied by a plant identification guide, so the end result was that I studiously avoided all UFOs (unidentified fruitlike objects) and lived in fear of the deadly sumac. Apparently, this prejudice wasn’t just held by yours truly as I couldn’t locate a pinch of it in any of the shops which I regularly frequent, so, although loath to turn to the internet for unknown produce, I had to do just that. My reluctance was proved to be ill-founded, however, when I stumbled upon Sambava, a spice trading company based in Bath. It was a simply laid out, easily navigable site, not overwhelmingly high tech, but packed with a wealth of herbs, spices and information. Not only did I find my precious sumac, but I got my paws on a handful of other ingredients that I’d only ever read about. Delivered the next day, my parcel arrived wrapped sturdily and securely, as is the custom with treasure, and the contents were fresh and beautiful. I can’t wait to try them all out!