Special Ingredients: Grains of Paradise (Discovered on a trip to Angles Camp)

Calaveras County

My husband recently took me for a weekend trip to Calaveras County.  What does that have to do with Grains of Paradise?  Very little, except that I found this interesting spice while in Murphys, which along with Angels Camp reside in Calaveras County, California.

Grains of Paradise

Grains of Paradise, formally known as Aframomum melegueta is a species in the ginger family. It has a few other names too: melegueta pepper, alligator pepper, Guinea grains or Guinea pepper, and it is obtained from the ground seeds.  Although it is native to West Africa’s coastal swampy habitats, it is an important cash crop of southern Ethiopia.

The pungent, peppery taste of the seeds is caused by aromatic ketones; and the dominating flavor components are of the closely-related cardamom, it does indeed taste like cardamon with a kick, its subtle, the heat comes later.  Max Falkowitz gives an even better description on Serious Eats:

grains of paradise

Grains of paradise are a spice worth a couple minutes’ meditation. Smell a small handful and you’ll be hit by an intense woody, almost forest-like aroma. Then pop one in your mouth and bite down. There’s an initial burst of inviting, peppery warmth, full but in no way harsh. Then a lifting note of citrus and something almost herby. In an instant the spice’s woody character takes hold, and tree bark gives way to cloves, cinnamon, and the faintest hint of cardamom. And the finish? Some of the most pleasant, full-bodied heat I’ve had the pleasure to encounter. It lingers for a while, not as a tingle or a burn, but as an assertive, gentle flame.

Melegueta is commonly used in West and North Africa cooking, where it was imported via caravan routes through the Sahara desert, and found its way to Sicily and Italy.  Pliny called it “African pepper” but it was subsequently forgotten in Europe, only to be rediscovered and renamed “grains of paradise” it became a popular substitute for black pepper in Europe in the 14th – 15th centuries.

In 1469, King Afonso V of Portugal granted the monopoly of trade in the Gulf of Guinea to Lisbon merchant Fernão Gomes, including the exclusive trade of Aframomum melegueta, then called “malagueta” pepper.  He provided 100 000 real/year for Gomes to explore  100 miles of the coast of Africa for five years. When Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492 and brought the first samples of Capsicum frutescens, the name malagueta was then applied to the new chilli “pepper”.

Today, it is largely unknown outside of West and North Africa, except as a flavoring in some beers (including Samuel Adams Summer Ale), gins, and Norwegian akvavit.   It is a component of the Moroccan spice mixture ras el hanout.  Creative cooks substitute it as an interesting alternative to black pepper.  Here are a few recipes I found:  Syrup of Grains of Paradise + Rosemary, great as a topping over fresh fruit, Samosas with Grains of Paradise (Kitchen M), and Shiso Sorbet with Mango and Grains of Paradise

Angles Camp + Calaveras County, California

Calaveras County is a sight to see with its rolling hills and giant valleys.  It is beautiful country side in the heart of what was once California’s gold country.  The beauty is not skin deep either, it has numerous caverns that hold beautiful surprises at every twist and turn.

a gold mining operation?

Calaveras is named for the Spanish word meaning skulls; the county was reportedly named for the remains of Native Americans discovered by the Spanish explorer Captain Gabriel Moraga.   He believed they had either died of famine or been killed in tribal conflicts over hunting and fishing grounds.  In fact, they were the remains of the native Miwuk people killed by Spanish soldiers after they rose against Spanish missionaries.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park is one of two preserves of Giant Sequoia trees, and worthy of a trip on its own.  While coastal redwoods may be the tallest trees, the Giant Sequoias are so named because they are the most massive.

Mercer Caverns


famous frogs


Angles Camp



down town Angels Camp

The sidewalks of Angles Camp have in place of the Hollywood Stars, frogs to mark talented jumpers.  The county hosts an annual Jumping Frog Jubilee, featuring a frog-jumping contest. Mark Twain based his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” on a story he claimed he heard at the Angels Hotel.  For reasons that now seem obvious, Angels Camp is sometimes referred to as “Frogtown.”

Henry and George Angel served as soldiers under John C. Frémont during the Mexican-American War. When the California Gold Rush started, they tried prospecting, but found they objected to the labor, so they set up a trading post, which became a camp, and eventually a town. The placers around their camp were very productive but gave out after a few years, and the population shrank until gold-bearing quartz veins were discovered in the town, which brought people flocking back. It was said that when the last mill finally ceased operations, the townspeople couldn’t sleep, the silence was so loud.


Murphys (formerly, Murphy, Murphy’s, Murphy’s Camp, Murphy’s Diggins, Murphys New Diggings, and Queen of the Sierra) is a census-designated place (CDP) in Calaveras County.  Aptly named “One of the Top 10 Coolest Small Towns in America” by Frommers, Murphys is a truly unique and memorable destination.

a sign of good things to come?

John and Daniel Murphy were part of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party, the first immigrant party to bring wagons across the Sierra Nevada to Sutter’s Fort in 1844. They earned a living as merchants, but like many others, began prospecting when the California Gold Rush began. They first started in Vallecito, which was known as “Murphys Old Diggings,” before moving to another location in 1848 which became “Murphys New Diggings,” “Murphy’s Camp,” and eventually just “Murphys.”

The placer mining in this location was wildly successful. Miners were limited to claims of 8 square feet and yet many were still became rich. The Murphy brothers themselves, however, made far more money as merchants than as miners. In fact, John was so successful that he left town at the end of 1849 and never returned, having a personal fortune of nearly $2 million.

Murphys is also a popular destination as a tourist resort.  Its main street is lined with restaurants boutiques and wine tasting rooms.  I’d say it has an advantage over Napa as you can wander down the sidewalk from one tasting to another, no need to drive by car.  Also nearby are giant sequoia trees in what is now Calaveras Big Trees State Park are a worthy draw.   John Muir, upon visiting, wrote in his book, The Mountains of California (1894):

a drive through tree

“MURPHY’S CAMP is a curious old mining-town in Calaveras County, at an elevation of 2,400 feet (730 m) above the sea, situated like a nest in the center of a rough, gravelly region, rich in gold. Granites, slates, lavas, limestone, iron ores, quartz veins, auriferous gravels, remnants of dead fire-rivers and dead water-rivers are developed here side by side within a radius of a few miles, and placed invitingly open before the student like a book, while the people and the region beyond the camp furnish mines of study of never-failing interest and variety.”

Like many other mining towns, fire was its bane and the town was destroyed three times by flames, in 1859, 1874, and 1893. After the second major fire, there was little gold left to mine, and so the town was never rebuilt to its boomtown condition. However, Murphys continued to thrive as a merchant center, supplying many of the silver mines in Nevada with provisions via Ebbetts Pass. The town is registered as California Historical Landmark #275. A “Hall of Comparative Ovations” built by a chapter of the clampers still stands in Murphys. The picture below labeled “Murphys’ Famous Residents Wall” is a picture of the “Wall of Comparative Ovations” at the “Old Timer Museum” in Murphys, CA. The plaques on the wall are install and maintained by members of “E Clampus Vitus.”

How's that for scale?

Many other towns reside in Calaveras County including San Andreas and they all seen to cling to some remnants of the gold diggers history.  Calaveras County with is thriving vineyards spotted along the highways, is worthy of more than a passing glance, and I now have an excuse (as if I needed one) to return to Murphys to keep stocked up with my supply of Grains of Paradise, at the Spice Tin.



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20 comments for “Special Ingredients: Grains of Paradise (Discovered on a trip to Angles Camp)

  1. October 9, 2011 at 2:17 AM

    I wish I could find grains of paradise here! I also dream of seeing sequoia trees.



  2. October 9, 2011 at 6:08 AM

    Intrigued enough to put this County on my wish list of travel. The spice trade interests me more and more – all the exploration for spices. A woodsy pepper? Count me in!
    Claudia recently posted..Pasta Luna and a visit from the Fairy Hobmother

  3. October 9, 2011 at 8:07 AM

    Looks like a great excursion and I am very intrigued by the grains of paradise.
    tammy recently posted..Full Circle

  4. October 9, 2011 at 7:16 PM

    Thanks for all the info about the grains of paradise! Sounds like it would be fun experiment with!

    I love Calaveras. We used to camp there many years ago, and it brings back many memories. I want to go back there some day.
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..How to Make Leftovers Exciting and Our Weekly Menu

  5. October 10, 2011 at 6:00 AM

    I remember coming across information about Grains of Paradise many years ago. I’m sure it’s stuffed in one of my notebooks somewhere.

    Thanks for taking us on your tour of Angles Camp. I may have been to Murphy’s many years ago. If it isn’t too far off of Interstate 5, I’m sure I have.

    Thanks for sharing, LouAnn…
    Louise recently posted..Moldy Cheese and a Cookbook Party Update

  6. October 11, 2011 at 4:49 PM

    I’ve heard of grains of paradise before, and of melegueta, though I didn’t know that they were the same thing.

    Calaveras County sounds really like a fun place to visit. And you pics of the sequoias are amazing!
    Stevie recently posted..Troya, San Francisco

  7. October 11, 2011 at 10:43 PM

    Thanks for the shout-out, LouAnn! The funny thing is that I went to Angels Camp just around the same time (or maybe a couple of months before) I made a post about grains of paradise, too! Can’t wait to see what you will use it for. 🙂
    Kitchen M recently posted..Ginger Pork Sesame Pita Wrap

  8. October 12, 2011 at 8:44 AM

    You discover the most interesting things in your neck of the woods. I found it so interesting that this is related to ginger. Both the spice and the whole area have my attention. Gorgeous!
    Lori recently posted..Kentucky Food Blogger Weekend Part One: The Dinner

  9. October 16, 2011 at 2:15 AM

    What a lovely trip he made! This is a beautiful place to be! The nature is just beautiful to see!
    I have never seen the grains of paradise over here but I will be on the lookout for them! I am intruiged by them now!
    Sophie recently posted..Home made fresh & dried figs chutney!

  10. October 17, 2011 at 2:32 PM

    I would love to visit the giant sequoias some day. I read the book The Wild Trees and have wanted to visit those trees even more since. And, I love grains of paradise! The flavor is so slightly different from black pepper. There’s a recipe for a bloody mary with grains of paradise in The Essential New York Times Cookbook which I need to try.
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Lisa Fain, What Are You Reading?

  11. October 17, 2011 at 11:36 PM

    Nice tree picture …

  12. October 23, 2011 at 1:38 AM

    Oh wow – grains of paradise are a cold remedy in Nigeria, we chew them for sore throats and all. But they are also stunning in dishes – I make a peanut butter spiced with grains of paradise which we serve with garden eggs, fresh cousins to aubergines, eaten out of hand. See http://www.food52.com/recipes/6146_grains_of_paradise_pb_dip.

    Glad your weekend away was fun and full of gorgeous discoveries!
    Kitchen Butterfly recently posted..My Childhood Favourites

  13. October 26, 2011 at 6:17 AM

    Very interesting! I never heard of Melegueta pepper before although there’s an Ethiopian spice store down the block. There is a spice there I still don’t recognize- a black stump, looks a bit like a twig, do you know what it is?

  14. October 29, 2011 at 6:19 AM

    Never heard of this spice but that’s why I come here you are souch a fountain of knowledge my dear.

  15. OysterCulture
    October 30, 2011 at 3:52 PM

    Rosa – I hope you can as its something incredible!

    Claudia – I was very much surprised and impressed, definitely good to add to the list.

    Tammy – they’ve been a lot of fun to play with. Now I only wish I had purchased more!

    Andrea – It almost made me want to cam – and I’ve never done it and confess to being nervous, but the scenery was breathtaking!

    Lori – if you can find it, try it, I think you would have a lot of fun with it.

    Lisa – Oh wow, that Bloody Mary would be perfect. Now I am thirsty.

    Kitchen Butterfly – Leave it to you to have some great recipes and ideas. A cold rememdy – I can see that especially as they are related to ginger.

    Sarah – You have me intrigued. What does it taste like? Black stumps – not chicory?

    Wizzy – Thanks, but I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had the chance to explore as I want.

    Stevie – I highly recommend a roadtrip especially from the BA its an easy drive.

    Louise – Sounds like you’ve been to Murphy’s and I bet its changed a bit, seems t be a bustling spot today, but I heard that’s not always been the case.

    Kitchen M – Once again I am following in your footsteps =)

  16. October 31, 2011 at 3:59 AM

    always nice to find new culinary discoveries !!pierre
    pierre recently posted..Tarte équinoxiale aux pommes

  17. November 6, 2011 at 6:47 AM

    That sounds very interesting! It is wonderful to come here and learn about new culinary info! Thanks!
    Erica recently posted..Turkey Meatballs with Guava Sauce (Albóndigas de Pavo con Salsa de Guayaba)

  18. November 8, 2011 at 3:18 PM

    Looks like such a fun trip, I have not been to that area since I was a kid. And grains of paradise are a favorite in my kitchen, just love them. As always love reading your background information and history…hope you are well and having a great week 🙂
    Magic of Spice recently posted..What’s for lunch? Truffle Salted Ahi with Manzano and Cucumber Salad

  19. OysterCulture
    November 13, 2011 at 8:01 PM

    Pierre – Thank you!

    Erica – My pleasure, I hope its reciprical as I never tire of learning about Columbian food through you .

    MoS – I am well, and finally coming up for air, life has been crazy until I made some changes. All is much better now.

  20. November 28, 2011 at 4:32 PM

    I love grains of paradise! They’re absolutely awesome in stews. Thanks for this post, it remind me I need to cook with them more frequently. (It took me years to hunt down a source.)
    Of Goats and Greens recently posted..A Side Suitable for Holiday Fare, Headlining Turnips and Squash

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