( Originally Published 1933 )
The cumin is native to the Mediterranean and is said to have been native to Egypt. Cumin is a low, untidy-looking plant with its flowers so dully colored one can hardly see them.
Root. It has a taproot.
Stem. The branching stems with their thread-like foliage spread out a little like spider's legs, and grow from four to eight inches high.
Leaf. The leaves are sparse and compounded into thread-like divisions. They taste bitter and balsamic.
Flower. The tiny flowers are not numerous. They are borne in umbels of from ten to twenty flowers at the extremities of the branches and are a dull magenta-pink.
Seed. The fragrant seeds are light yellow-brown, flat on one side, one-quarter of an inch long, ribbed, and with a bit of the stem adhering to them. When unripe they taste like a disinfectant to me, but when ripe taste hot, and balsamic.
HISTORY AND LEGEND
Cumin is mentioned in Isaiah and in Matthew as a portion of the tithe paid by the Pharisees in Judea. Pliny in his usual chatty fashion tells us it produces paleness in those who drink the oil from the seeds in water, and that the disciples of Porcius Patro, a celebrated professor of eloquence, used to partake of this drink to acquire the paleness of their teacher and so look as if they, too, had spent long hours in study. Other writers, however, claim it cures pallor caused by illness !
It has been used in India, China, and Europe, is on Charlemagne's list, and appeared in American literature, but is probably not grown very much here. Amongst the Greeks, cumin symbolized cupidity, and misers were said to have eaten of it. Fernie says, "The herb was thought to confer specially the gift of retention, preventing the theft of any object which contained it, and . . . also keeping the fowls and pigeons from straying and lovers from proving fickle." In the Middle Ages, in Germany, the bride and groom carried cumin with dill and salt in their pockets during the marriage ceremony.
There is a Thuringen story about cumin. A wood nymph lived near to a peasant family and her airy presence brought them good luck. But the peasant wife wanted to make sure that the nymph would not leave them, so she cunningly baked some kiimmel (cumin) in the bread, carried it to the grove of trees, and gave it to the nymph.
The fairy tasted the kummel as soon as she bit into it and realized that the woman had not had faith in her. She was very angry and left immediately, and thenceforth good fortune no longer abided with this family.
Medicine. An oil distilled from the seeds is carminative, and a stimulant.
Perfume. The oil from the seeds is very fragrant and enters into a synthetic cassia.
Food. The seeds flavor liqueurs, principally kummel and crime de menthe. The Dutch and Swiss aromatize their cheeses with it. In Germany it flavors the bread, and with juniper berries and fennel, it flavors the sauerkraut. In combination with saffron and cinnamon it gives an unusual character to certain Spanish dishes. In Egypt, Turkey, and India it is a condiment and is one of the herbs mixed into curry powder.
Cumin is grown to-day in Sicily, Egypt, Asia Minor, India, Malabar, Persia, and Denmark.
According to Vilmorin, the seed, which retains its germinating power for two years, should be sown in the open ground as soon as it is warm enough. It is not at all difficult to raise. Planted the end of May at Foxden it bore fruit the end of July; that is, in about eight weeks after sowing.
Harvest. The ripe seeds are picked and dried.