They are smaller than the head of a pin. Food scientist Harold McGee claims that 3,300 of them constitute one gram – one wonders who even had the patience to work that out. Their Latin name ‘somniferum’ means ‘brings sleep’ and the soporific effects of eating them were well known to ancient cultures. These are poppy seeds, the tiny kidney-shaped seeds deriving from the opium poppy, or Papaver Somniferum. We mostly experience them scattered across buns or breads. Slate-blue or white are the colours they come in, the former mainly used in European cooking and the latter in Indian, and their cultivation for culinary purposes dates as far back as 1400BC. Early Egyptians pressed them into an oil they used for cooking although these days it is more likely the oil will turn up in paint processing.
I had never really thought very much about poppy seeds until the weekend I made a Poppy Seed Cake, mainly to utilise a surfeit of manda- rins I had been given. The recipe I used specified lemons but the version I made was so excitingly good that I concluded it was precisely that combination of sweet sweet mandarins and nutty poppy seeds – poppy seeds, moreover, I had soaked in milk for a couple of hours.
Of their use in cooking – apart from their decorative, textural function – I was mostly familiar with Eastern and Central European cuisine, which commonly features them as a moist and luscious paste coiled inside pastries or breads. Mixed with butter or milk and sugar, the seeds are finely ground – not an easy feat as it turns out, and requiring a special little mill or mortar and pestle – and honey, lemon rind and lemon juice may be added. Poppy seed rolls seamed with this paste are common in Croatia and Poland and Hungary, and in Germany and Austria they make Mohnstrudel and Mohnstriezel, strudel and cake respectively, with the ‘mohn’ translating as ‘moon seeds’ due to the fact that in the countries belonging to the former Austro-Hungarian Empire the poppy was once dedicated to Diana, the goddess of the moon.
In Indian cooking the white poppy seeds are more often used to thicken sauces – and to contribute a sweet, nutty, milky depth; they should really be roasted first for a more intense flavour.
The other seed seen scattered over buns and breads is, of course, the sesame seed. The sesame plant, from tropical regions around the world, is cultivated specifically for these seeds. When the gods met to create the world, according to Assyrian legend, they drank wine made from sesame seeds – but in fact the use to which they are mostly put these days is con- fined to decoration and texture; to the ground and processed paste known as tahini; and to their glorious oil, an oil that is very resistant to rancidity.They may be white, yellow, black or red – and are lovely folded through batters for bread or muffins, or scattered through steamed vegetables like broccoli, or tossed into stir-fries. That sublime Middle Eastern sweet, halva, is composed largely of ground sesame seeds. And just in case you needed further reasons to incorporate either poppy seeds or sesame seeds into your dietary routine other than taste, texture and history, there is a wealth of health ones.
Which suggests that hoeing into a generous wedge of the following cake can only be good for you! It was certainly good for me: I served it warm with home-made custard, and felt happy for a long time afterwards.