Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Garlic Mustard - the First Spice?

Garlic mustard Alliaria petiolata is a major invasive species spreading across the US.  It inhibits growth of tree seedlings and other plants with it allelopathic chemicals.  It was brought to the Western Hemisphere as a familiar herb, and now new research suggests that it was the first known European seasoning from prehistoric times.

A story in PLOS One describes the findings of remnants of garlic mustard in carbonized food products in the bottom of pots dating from 5750 to 6,100 years ago, roughly 4,000 B.C.  As it has little food value, the researchers postulate that it was there for its value as a spice.  Its flavor is, as you might guess, a blend of mustard and garlic.

The description of the research is more easily understood in the article from the BBC.  While we eat the leaves, they postulate that the seeds were ground up and used.
"These deposits contained microscopic traces of plant-based silica, known as phytoliths, which can be used to identify the plants from which they came.  It was these phytoliths that provided the evidence of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in the carbonized scrapings."
The history of the earliest added flavors to food is indistinct.  Spices may have been used in the Middle East earlier.  Coriander was found in a cave in Israel from around 23,000 B.C., but it hasn't been linked to food preparation or cooking at that time.  So, spice or herb?  According to Wikipedia "Culinary use typically distinguishes herbs as referring to the leafy green parts of a plant (either fresh or dried), from a "spice", a product from another part of the plant (usually dried), including seeds, berries, bark, roots and fruits."

If you aren't familiar with the plant that Barb loves to hate, look up the 2011 blog Cutting the Mustard for more than you want to know.  The only good news is that garlic mustard remains an interesting edible, the young leaves adding a nice bite to a salad or sandwich.  Linda Ellis has suggested that "Its flavor is just a plot to use humans to vicariously carry out it's evil deeds."  Remember, it convinced our forebearers to carry it across the Atlantic.

Details at this link. 
More on edible weeds and plants at
Thanks to Steve and Amy, the Fishin Magicians for the lead.