Just to get the basics out of the way, allspice is a unique spice, and not a blend of several, or all, spices. Allspice has a warm and spicy flavor and aroma reminiscent of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
Allspice is native to the Caribbean and Latin America. It was being used by the indigenous people to flavor chocolate and to preserve meats when European explorers arrived. Allspice became so popular in England that it also goes by the name English Spice.
Allspice is the berry of an evergreen tree that once grew wild throughout Latin America. The wild trees are now mostly gone and replaced by plantations. Each berry is the size of a pea and holds two seeds. Berries must pass throw the body of a bat or local bird before they are sufficiently heated and softened for germination. Explorers attempted to bring allspice trees back to Europe, but had little success. While allspice is still grown in many Latin American countries, the best allspice is believed to come from Jamaica.
The berries must be harvested in July or August when they have reached full size, but are not yet ripe. Much of the harvesting is still done by hand due to the height of the trees. Berries are then laid in the sun to dry. Sun-drying takes around twelve days and can be arduous. The berries can also be kiln-dried, but sun-drying produces the best final product.
Allspice has a warm and peppery flavor that can be substituted for clove, nutmeg, or cinnamon. It is a very versatile spice that is commonly used in baked goods, but also used in spiced meats, fish, pickles, and rice. Allspice is used in cuisines all over the world from Scandinavia to the Caribbean and India. Allspice is also believed to be used in liqueurs such as Benedictine and Chartreuse. Pimento Dram, or Allspice Dram--a liqueur made from rum, sugar and allspice--has become popular in autumnal cocktails.
There are conflicting reports as to the history of the name allspice, but it is known that it dates back to at least the 1680s. Some say that it is due to the wide variety of dishes in which it can be used. Others suggest that it is due to the fact that its flavor and aroma are similar to a mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
Because of the similarity in shape and size to a peppercorn, as well as the heat and spicy flavor, Spanish explorers assumed allspice was a kind of pepper and called it pimento. In many languages, allspice is still referred to as pimento or Jamaica pepper.
The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart