Allspice is native to the West Indies, notably Jamaica, and Central and South America. Allspice was brought from the Caribbean to Europe by the explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They mistook it for pepper and, confusingly, it also became called pimento. (The Spanish call sweet peppers pimiento (pepper) which is sometimes anglicized to pimento. Red sweet peppers are used to make paprika and to stuff olives. They are not related to allspice.) The natives of Jamaica, the Arawaks, used allspice to cure and preserve meats – animals and humans! In the Arawak language, meat cured with allspice was called “boucan” and Europeans who subsequently cured meat this way became known as boucaniers, ultimately buccaneers.
Allspice is available whole (red-brown berries the size of a large peppercorn) or ground. It has a fragrant aroma and taste, redolent of a mixture of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. It is used to flavour savoury dishes, such as Caribbean curries and jerk seasonings, and sweet dishes including cakes and jams. It is an essential ingredient in pickling spice and many potpourri.
Its traditional medicinal uses are as a digestive and carminative in the treatment of diarrhoea, dyspepsia and flatulence (because of its eugenol content) and as a mild anaesthetic to relieve arthritis and muscle pain (thanks to its tannins). Its essential oil is a common ingredient in men’s fragrances.