10 (organic) spices to cook with this winter

| 6th November 2009
Why cooking with spices can be great for the tastebuds and good for your health, plus ten spices to cook with this winter

It wasn't until I started getting a weekly veg box that I began to experiment with spices and herbs - a bit of grated nutmeg onto steamed spinach here, a sprinkle of turmeric in a soup there.

Spicing it up means you don't get bored of cooking or eating potatoes, carrots and cabbage every week. It's amazing how a pinch of powder can transform basic ingredients into something exciting, tasty and aromatic. Armed with a good array of spices there is endless scope for variation.

And, in a world of bad smells (bus seat carpets, synthetic air 'fresheners', traffic exhaust fumes) it's good to know there are some things, like freshly crushed cardamon pods or cinnamon bubbling away in a pumpkin soup, you can really breathe in and enjoy.

At this time of year, spices come into their own. As well as giving food and drink a spicy, seasonal edge (think mulled wine, gingerbread and cloves studded into oranges, onions and meat) some 'warming' spices like ginger help combat the cold by boosting circulation, stimulating digestion and helping to treat flu symptoms.

Spice for life

Knowledge of spices' health benefits is nothing new, and when their potential healing properties are 'discovered' in a science lab they frequently hit headlines - whether the anti-cancer properties of turmeric's active ingredient curcumin or the painkilling properties of capsaicin, the molecule that gives chilli peppers their fiery edge.

The message is catching on with big brands too. Earlier this year, Schwartz repositioned its herbs and spices as a health food high in natural antioxidants.

All this is old news to some. Ayurveda, the 5,000 year-old Indian health philosophy has a long history of using spices for medicinal purposes which is why they are tastily woven into the cuisine.

So what other spices are good to eat in winter?

I ask Doctor Rohan Nagar, an ayuvedic doctor who consults for the Shymala ayurvedic health and beauty centre in London.

His top three spices for the cold season are turmeric - ‘it takes your immunity up, is anti-infectious, anti-septic and very good for liver' - cinnamon - 'very good at increasing digestive fire' - and saffron - 'increases heat and circulation in all round the body - it's good for the spleen, heart and liver'.

Fairtrade trailblazers

The good news for spice lovers is that there's no need to go for big brands like Schwartz. Organic and Fairtrade spices are out there to be tried and tasted.

At the forefront of Fairtrade spices in the UK and Europe is Steenbergs Organic, a family firm run by Sophie and Axel Steenberg, which has an impressive range of over 400 organic spices, herbs, curry mixes and blends.


When they set up the business in 2003, neither Axel (an accountant) nor Sophie (marketing and PR) had a background in spices.

'The key for us,' says Axel on the phone from Steenbergs HQ in North Yorkshire, 'was to find our own suppliers and build long term relationships. We sat down and started putting the supply chain together from nothing.'

At the time Fairtrade certified spices didn't exist so they contacted the Fairtrade Foundation directly to help create this new category. Steenbergs was in the first group of Fairtrade traders for spices and was the first company in the UK to sell a Fairtrade spice.

It's predominantly the Indian spices that are certified: cloves, cinnamon, cardamon, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla, pepper and turmeric. Apparenly these are amongst their biggest selling items.

A little goes a long way

Is Axel aware of the impact of Fairtrade premium? 'Absolutely,' he says. 'From putting locked cabinets into the general social area (which reduces crime) to funding a local school for education. Really simple, basic things that in the UK we presume everyone has. A little goes a long way.'

One of the best things about having a traceable supply chain is that you know not only how the spice is grown (in this case, organically), but also what happens to it afterwards - 'post harvest treatment', in the trade.

Steenbergs spices are tested for microbe levels and then, if needs be they are steam sterilised (rather like being put in a pressure cooker of boiling water).

'The hygiene and care level therefore has to be high along the line - growers know that the spices are not going to be treated with chemical fumigation or irradiation,' says Axel. 'They know if it's dirty or poorly handled then it's not exported and it'll come back to them. It's a good self discipline.'

Closer to home, in Yorkshire, Steenbergs have incorporated many environmental features into their factory including wool and recycled newspaper insulation, triple glazing, and 'low volume/impact machinery with much of the production being hand work rather than machined'.

Steenbergs are not the first ethical and organic spice and herbs brand to hit the market. There are those like Hambledon Herbs set up in 1982 or own label wholesale brands like Suma which have been going for 30 years.

Even so, tracking down ethical and organic was, says Axel 'hard work', particularly as they chose to build a supply chain from scratch. Not that they let this obstacle get in the way. 'Spice was an area that fascinated us. These little things that can transform raw ingredients... it's inspiring.'

Let the season of being merry be a spicy one!


Top 10 spices for winter cooking - and how to use them


This versatile spice is a key ingredient in curries. For fun, add a teaspoon of it into rice as you cook it for bright yellow rice.


Commonly used in cakes and biscuits, it can be used it on anything from porridge in the morning to curries and tagines. Add a pinch to cup of tea to give it spicy twist.


Use a few strands to flavor soups, rice dishes and meat dishes.


Best bought whole. Stud the cloves into onions to add stock soup or use them to enhance the flavour of meat.


Grate into vegetables such as cabbage, spinach or brocolli. Combines well with cheese, egg and chicken.


Very distinctive, strong flavour - add to Moroccan or Mexican style cooked dishes and salads.


Sweet, spicy, warm and aromatic, cardamom pods add a distinctive touch to curries, breads and soups. Try putting them in the water as you cook carrots or add them to a strong milky tea to make a simple Indian chai.


Great for adding to curries and for baking with (ginger biscuits and cakes).

Cayenne pepper

Ground from the finest small red chilli peppers of the capsicum variety this bright red powder has the power to make any dish fiery hot, but it also has a subtle flavour-enhancing quality.

Curry powder

As well as being a staple for curries, this versatile mix of spices can be used (in small amounts) to lift a vegetable soup or as a dry marinade on meat before grilling or mixed with mayonnaise for curried eggs.


Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living Editor


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