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Mortar and pestle

Published on October 12, 2012 by Ethné de Vienne
Ethne Mortar And Pestle

I had an old boyfriend once who was a university student, he eventually graduated, but I think it was a distinction that had been bestowed on him for time served and not much else. Not that he lacked intelligence, he just had a higher regard for himself and his abilities than others did. By the time he became an entrepreneur our relationship had already come to an amicable end.  I remember however, that he was always – “Busy, very, very busy”. It didn’t matter the time of year or the day of the week, this guy was always “VERY busy”.  I never understood what made his life so hectic or why he never found the time to do all that he claimed he wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no slacker myself, but people who say that they’re too busy to slow down, too busy to cook, too busy to eat well, or too busy to play, really puzzle me.  I mean if you think about it, where’s the fun, and when are they planning on having some?

Mortar and pestle

It is always heart warming to see those who take the time to prepare and share meals.

Even before becoming spice hunters, Philippe and I were avid travelers.  Our exploits allowed us to sample a variety of cuisines from all over the world and to develop a lasting respect for people of different cultures who embrace the art of cooking with spices.  It is always heart warming to see those who take the time to prepare and share meals.  It’s never just about the food; it’s truly also about the legacy.  It’s about passing on the knowledge and encouraging the next generation to follow suit.  It’s also about doing what it takes to eat tasty, nutritious, simple, shared, home-made food.  We all know that some – thank God not all – of our habits – will in time be emulated by our kids. The pleasure, good sense and totally self indulgent practice of eating well are therefore all wonderful pretexts on which to hedge our bets, hoping that the “little ones” will copy some of those as well.

Everyone can benefit from the slightest hint of inspiration when on kitchen duty. Even the best cooks are inclined to change a technique, substitute a spice, an herb or even replace an ingredient at the last minute, if sufficiently motivated to do so. I contend that there is no other tool in the kitchen, or in life for that matter (why not go for broke?) which provides as much creative incentive as a mortar.  Be it a single spice, a blend, an herb, garlic or even chilies; once placed in a mortar and the pounding or rotating using the pestle begins, the odours reach the nostrils and like magic, the mind begins to race. This ancient utensil is one of the few tools that cannot be put on automatic, replay, pulse or cruise control. There is nothing virtual about a mortar and pestle.  We are compelled to engage and it is precisely because of the focus and interaction imposed by hand grinding that we always go beyond the limits imposed by ourselves or others.

Mortar and pestle

So for your own sake; slow down, get yourself some good whole spices, grab your mortar and pestle and let the games begin.

After the initial worry or revelry, depending on our experience and comfort level with the process, we usually arrive at the level of “how long is this going to take?” Within seconds we begin to wonder if we should “grind some more?” It’s never really long after that we begin to concoct combinations that we imagine might be more appropriate for the dish.  Often at this point a certain degree of inventiveness takes hold and the next challenge then becomes knowing when to stop.  Rule of thumb; pharmacists grind medications to a fine powder because they have to be swallowed or applied. Cooks grind spices to a coarse texture because they will eventually be cooked anyway – unless of course we’re using our spices as a finishing touch.

What is the purpose of grinding spices yourself in the first place? The answer is simple; the very best spices in the world are sold whole.  To achieve the maximum benefits from a culinary or health perspective, grinding spices yourself just prior to use is recommended. The volatile oils, contained in spices are released only once they are ground. So for your own sake; slow down, get yourself some good whole spices, grab your mortar and pestle and let the games begin. Bon appétit!


About the author

Ethné de Vienne

Ethné de Vienne was born in Trinidad, so spices and cooking have always been a part of her life. She worked in fashion for many years before finally building the renowned Montreal catering service with her husband Philippe. Today, as a full-time spice hunter, she takes great care in maintaining Épices de Cru’s relationships in its vast network of suppliers around the globe. She’ll never deny that any dish can be improved by a little cumin or zaatar, and probably a nice glass of rum!