Allspice is the fruit of the Pimenta dioica tree, native to southern Mexico, Central America and the Greater Antilles, and now grown in many tropical regions of the world. The tree is mid-sized and similar in appearance to the Bay laurel tree. The fruits are harvested green, then dried in the sun, usually on large cement slabs or on tarps near the trees. The brown, dried fruits look very much like peppercorns. The English believed ground allspice was a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, which is why it was named allspice.
Allspice is one of the most important flavors in Caribbean cooking. The fresh leaves are used to infuse flavor into foods, then removed before serving, in much the same way as bay leaves. However, the dried leaves don’t retain their flavor, so they’re not sold in the marketplace. The leaves and wood are also used for smoking meats.
Allspice is used in savory foods in much of the world. It is used in moles in Mexico and Central America. In Europe it’s used as a pickling spice, and it is a common ingredient in sausage preparation. Middle Eastern cuisine uses allspice to flavor stews and meat dishes, and it is used extensively in Palestinian cooking. In the U.S. it is found primarily in desserts. In the West Indies “pimento dram,” a liqueur, is made from allspice.
Purchase allspice whole, whenever possible, and grind it to flavor sauces and barbecue rubs as a flavorful “secret ingredient.” While freshly ground allspice is very fragrant and flavorful, the ground variety does not maintain its full aroma for long.