Blue Fenugreek

Blue fenugreek is a relative of fenugreek which is native to the Caucasus region, and it is an essential ingredient in Georgian cooking in particular (interestingly, it grows only in the mountains of northern Georgia and not in the south of the country, and is known as ‘utshko suneli’ – foreign spice – in the south). Blue fenugreek has a milder, less bitter and astringent taste than regular fenugreek. Its principal use is as a part of the Georgian national spice blend Khmeli Suneli, and also it is added to stews and casseroles, working so well here because its flavour develops and intensifies with long cooking, and it also seems to bring out the other flavours involved. Blue fenugreek is found in another area, that being the Alps of Europe, and here the dried leaves are used as a herb added to a few varieties of cheese, and as a flavouring in local rye breads.

In cheese pro­duction, spices are of minor im­por­tance. There are some soft cheeses fla­voured with garlic or pepper (usually green pepper), but other spices are seen only rarely. In South­ern Ger­many, there are local cheeses spiced with caraway; I have read that cumin is used for the same purpose in Holland and France, but I have never seen such a cheese. Hungary, of course, has some paprika-flavoured cheese varieties. Fresh cheese, which has only a mild flavour, is often covered with dried herbs (oregano, thyme), parti­cularly in the Medi­terranean. Lastly, some cheeses contain annatto seed extract (bixin) as a colourant, e. g., British cheddar.

Cheese flavoured with blue fenugreek (Schabzigerkäse, occasionally transcribed into English as sap sago cheese) is a specialty local to the region around Glarus, in the Swiss canton of the same name. This cheese is twice ripened, ground, mixed with blue fenugreek powder and then cast into its final shape. Blue fenugreek not only gives a unique flavour, but also a pale green colour to this cheese. Like most other hard cheese varieties, Schabziger is mostly used as a flavouring: It is a tasty, unusual alternative to Italian parmigiano for pasta dishes; it can be used for several types of stuffings; or can be mixed with butter to give a milder bread spread.

Blue fenugreek is not commonly used to flavour other types of cheese, besides bread spreads based on cottage cheese. It is, generally, not much used for foods prepared in home kitchens, but rather an industrial spice hardly known to consumers; I don;t know even of commercial spice mixtures employing this rather exotic spice. Yet it is occasionally called for in local Swiss foods, where it indeed makes good appearance: The herb powder is simply sprinkeled over fried potatoes (Rösti) or potato-based caserolles. This seems to be restricted to a small part of Switzerland.

Independently, blue fenu­greek ap­pears in another special­ty of the Alps, namely South Alpine rye breads, whence the name Brot­klee (bread clover). Ground blue fenu­greek leaves are added in minute amounts to the dough of rye breads in Tyrol and Southern Tyrol (which is part of Italy, where it is referred to as Alto Adige). These breads, already quite flavour­ful, acquire a unique taste from the blue fenu­greek. The herb is dried by a special procedure including a fer­menta­tion step; therefore, it acquires a strong, characteristic aroma.

Rye breads (often referred to as dark or black breads) are a typical food of the cooler regions of Europe, since rye thrives better than wheat in such climate. Gluten, the protein that makes wheat flour dough elastic, is mostly absent from rye, and consequently, rye bread is dense and less aired than wheat bread; furthermore, they have a dark, earthy flavour that anybody accustomed to rye bread will miss when travelling through regions where only wheat bread is baked. Because of their more intense base aroma, rye breads are quite often flavoured with spices, e. g., pumpkin seeds, coriander, fennel or caraway fruits.

Outside of Central, Eastern and North­ern Europe, bread is mostly pro­duced from wheat flour (white bread); there are in­numerable local varie­ties dif­fering in the com­posi­tion of the dough, the fer­menta­tion pro­cedure and ad­ditional com­po­nents (diary products, boiled pota­toes, olive oil). Wheat bread is often fla­voured with nutty-tasting seeds sprinkled over the sur­face before baking (poppy, sesame); sometimes, the dough is enriched with flavourings (fried onions, garlic). In the Eastern Mediterranean, bread flavoured with mahaleb cherry stones is baked, and Turkish breads often are sprinkled with nigella seeds. In the Indian Himalayas, I have once eaten ajwain-sprinkled bread, but I think this was quite an exception and not typical for cuisine in Ladakh.

1 comment

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