Pimento (you probably know it as Allspice) is one of the most important ingredients in Jamaican cuisine. Pimento wood, leaves, and seeds (berries) are the main components of jerk and jerk seasoning and pimento is used in many ways in Island cooking – meats, vegetables, sauces, pickling, and even dessert. And all but a tiny percentage of the world's pimento is grown in Jamaica!
Pimento/allspice is the only spice that is grown exclusively in the Western Hemisphere. The tree is indigenous to the rainforests of South and Central America where it grows wild. Unfortunately, the wild trees were cut down to harvest the berries and few remain today. There are plantations in Mexico and parts of Central America but the finest allspice comes from Jamaica where the climate and soil are best suited to producing the aromatic berries.
Pimento/allspice was used by the Mayans as an embalming agent and by other South American Indians to flavor chocolate. Jamaica’s indigenous Arawaks used allspice to help cure and preserve meats, sometimes animals, sometimes their enemies! The pimento-cured meat was known in Arawak as boucan and, later, Europeans who cured meat this way came to be known as boucaniers, which ultimately became "buccaneers".
Pimento was discovered in Jamaica by Spanish explorers in 1509 and the name originates from the Spanish “pimenta” (pepper or peppercorn). It is the dried immature fruit of the Pimenta dioica plant, also known as Jamaica Pepper. When dry, the fruits (or berries or seeds) are brown and look like large black or brown peppercorns. The whole berries have a longer shelf life than ground pimento and provide fuller flavor and aroma when freshly ground. The spice was exported to Europe soon after the Spanish discovered the New World. There were several attempts to transplant the tree to spice-producing regions in the East, but these trees produced little fruit.
Ground allspice is not, as some people believe, a mixture of spices. The name “allspice” comes from the fact that it smells and tastes like cinnamon, cloves, pepper and nutmeg combined.
The fresh leaves of the pimento plant are also used in Island cooking. They are similar to bay leaves and, similarly, are discarded after cooking. But, unlike bay leaves, dried pimento leaves lose a lot of flavor when dried so you will rarely see them sold this way. Jamaica’s street jerk vendors often make a bed of pimento leaves for the chicken they’re cooking.
Pimento is also a good home remedy for upset stomach – chew it or crush it up and make tea. It’s also used in the preparation of beans, not only because of its excellent flavor but because it is believed to reduce the flatulence caused by beans.
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You can grow the Pimento tree outdoors in the tropics and subtropics with normal garden soil and watering (hardy in Zone 10). It’s a small to medium-sized tree (up to 40 feet) but smaller plants can be killed by frost. Larger plants can only tolerate short periods of frost, to 26°F. The plant is dioecious, meaning that the plants are either male or female and need to be kept in close proximity for the fruits to develop. Pimento also makes an excellent container plant and can even be kept as a houseplant, but needs a sunny window.
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Here are some on-line sources for pimento/allspice plants and seeds: