By Marion Maxwell.
They have been found by archaeologists at the bottom of Swiss lakes and in Egyptian tombs. In Germany they were placed under the beds of restless children and sprinkled in coffins.
They were widely believed to have the power to banish demons – not to mention bad breath and trapped wind. North American Puritans chewed them to while away the boredom of long sermons and scattered them round the house to get rid of fleas.
Widely thought to confer faithfulness on anyone who ate them, they were fed to pigeons – and lovers – to keep them from straying .
Maybe you’ve guessed – caraway seeds.
I had always assumed that caraway seeds were among those flavourings, like nutmeg or cinnamon, that came from far away places with strange sounding names. Until, that is, I heard tell of them being harvested in Fermanagh, in the townland of Cornerk to be exact, near Derrygonnelly.
The homestead at Cornerk had been tended by the Hassard family for generations. Set into the slopes of Navar mountain, it was small, but proudly self-sufficient. In front, a thick boxwood hedge made a natural fence for the kitchen garden that produced a grand show of flowers, vegetables, herbs and fruit.
When Annie Hassard moved into Cornerk in 1941, part of the role she inherited as woman of the house was to see to the harvesting of the caraway. It grew in a patch of the kitchen garden, a strong plant that had carrot-like leaves and produced, every other year, white flower heads from which the little brown crescent-shaped seeds would appear.
On a good day in July, a white sheet would be spread out, the patch would be scythed, sheaves formed and laid out in little bundles to dry. Then you shook them till there wasn’t a seed left on the chaff. Done up in white paper tea bags saved over the winter, caraway seeds made a welcome present for friends and neighbours.
The broader picture is that Annie’s caraway patch at Cornerk forms one tiny part of a distribution map that takes in much of Central and Northern Europe. It’s a taste map too, on which you can chart the uses of caraway with its distinctive aniseed-like flavour in various regional specialities – eaten with cheeses, used to flavour sauerkraut, added to breads and cakes. Caraway’s essential oil is a key ingredient in severa liqueurs such as Kummel.
In France, it earns the nicknames ‘mountain cumin’ or ‘fool’s aniseed’ but the proper word is carvi -and so a Frenchman would have no problem understanding an Ulsterman who referred to his beloved caraway seed cake as ‘carvy’ : the word is a direct import, via Scots, from French.
Now that Irish cuisine has discovered lemongrass and cardamom, caraway is right out of fashion. Yet only half a century ago, it was a common addition here to anything from soda bread to potato bread to madeira cake, an attempt – no doubt – to add interest to food that had to be eaten all-too-often.
With caraway, you love it or loathe it. Me, I’m banned by my husband from using it in our kitchen: seemingly, an army of aunts insisted on feeding him caraway seed cake at birthday parties and he couldn’t abide it. As to the power of caraway to command faithfulness, I can happily claim not to be reliant on it in our house, but I’m tickled to learn – if you believe all you read – that a more high-profile wife, Anne Boleyn, made use of caraway seeds in securing her marriage to Henry VIII. Caraway worked its magic in their courtship, not by keeping his heart lassoed to hers, but because it cured his indigestion and stopped his hiccups.