I used to believe that ground up allspice was a combination of various spices. It was not until I realised spices should be freshly ground to realise their potential that I discovered that allspice is the unripe and dried fruit of Pimenta dioica. This little fruit was discovered by Christopher Columbus, when he mistakenly brought it back from Jamaica believing it was pepper.

Cinnamon is the bark of the tree called Cinnamomun verum, which is scraped off and then dried. It is easily confused with cassia, which is often sold as cinnamon, particularly in powdered form. In its quill or stick form, you can tell the difference ? cinnamon is made up of many thin layers, while cassia is one thick stick.

The Venetians had the monopoly of it, as they bought it from Arab traders in Alexandria, but this was broken in the late-15th century by the Portuguese, who discovering Ceylon, also stumbled upon a source of cinnamon ? it had been something of a mystery to the Europeans until then. Prized since earliest memory, it was burned by the Romans at funerals to disguise nasty smells. Nero, before his fiddling, burned a year?s supply at his wife Poppaea?s funeral.

Nutmeg and its companion mace are the seed and its lacy covering of the plant Myristica fragrans and is mainly grown in Indonesia. A sprinkling on custard or spinach and the dish is transformed, though many people loath it. It has mild hallucinogenic properties, but you would need to consume rather a lot for any effect.

The name cloves comes from the French clou, meaning nail. They are grown primarily in Indonesia and Madagascar. During the 17th and 18th centuries, they were worth their weight in gold in Britain. From the sweet smell of cloves stuck into an orange to the sickly smell of Kretek (Indonesian clove cigarettes) these dried flower buds have many uses, including being a most effective painkiller for toothache.

The general history of spices has been turbulent and it was the Dutch who, with their Dutch East India Company (VOC), became rulers of the spice trade. Formed in 1602, the VOC held a virtual monopoly on spices until 1770, when the appropriately named French governor Poivre of Mauritius managed to steal some seeds of cloves and nutmegs and grow them. Perhaps it is thanks to the VOC that the Dutch have an enduring love of spices and use them enthusiastically in their cookery.

At this time of year, the Dutch bakers? shops are filled with speculaas, spicy biscuits pressed into moulds of windmills and flowers, and pepernoten, nut-sized biscuits that Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) throws around on 6 December representing the coins St Nicholas threw as a dowry through the window of a poor man with three daughters to marry off. Sinterklaas songs tell, rather oddly, of him arriving from Spain (St Nicholas actually coming from Myra, in Asia Minor). He travels around Holland on a white horse, in his red-and-white bishop?s robes ? another possible origin of Father Christmas. In a burst of very un-Dutch political incorrectness, he was surrounded by Zwarte Pieten, or black Peters. These are blacked-up ?servants? of the saint, perhaps depicting his Moorish origins.

I now grate my own nutmeg and grind the other spices. Most spices, like pepper or coffee, contain oils and, if you use ready-ground mixtures, these oils dry up. So invest in an electric coffee grinder and use that, or, if you don?t mind some energy going into your cooking, use a pestle and mortar. The difference is well worth it. If you can?t be bothered to grind them, use them whole in stews. Or make my favourite pudding at this time of year. Stewed pears ? red wine, whole, peeled pears, a cinnamon stick and some sugar ? what could be easier?

Spiced pears

These make the perfect addition to partridge, pheasant, venison or almost any game, but it is vital that the spices, except the ginger, are freshly ground.

Ingredients

?cloves ?cinnamon ?nutmeg ?allspice ?ground ginger ?demerara sugar ?pears ?butter

Method

1. Grind the spices ? either in an electric grinder or in a pestle and mortar. Put the spice mixture on a plate and add an equal volume of sugar.
2. Peel, core and quarter the pears, then cover them completely with the spice mixture.
3. In a frying pan, melt the butter and, when it is sizzling and hot, fry the pears until golden.

Speculaas

You probably won?t have a wooden windmill mould, but these are equally good when rolled out thinly.

Ingredients

? 8oz flour ?4oz butter ?4oz dark brown sugar ?2tbsp milk ? one egg yolk ?1tsp of each of the following spices: cinnamon, ground ginger, allspice, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom ? flaked almonds (optional)

Method

1. Mix all the ingredients into a smooth dough, then wrap in cling film and chill for an hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 175ºC. Roll the dough thinly, incorporating the almonds if you wish, and cut into squares. Bake on an oiled tray for 10 to 15 minutes or until brown.