Food For Thought

Caraway Seeds in Abundance

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.