Each cuisine has a signature spice mixture. One whiff of a curry blend leaning toward cardamom and cumin and the mouth waters for Indian cooking. Similarly, a five spice blend strong on star anise sends the salivary glands toward China.
The mark of a great cuisine is probably that a signature blend of spices has evolved with it. One of the most fragrant and commonly used is quatre épices, the blend of basic spices that is used in many recipes from France. On one level, this is a mix of fragrant spices that the cook kept at home. They might have also included fragrant herbs such as bay leaf and thyme. Julia Child and Simone Beck in their seminal book Mastering the Art of French Cooking have a deliciously complex mixture with a dozen ingredients.
Most cooks, however, would keep a simple version made up of cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and white pepper. The flavour orientation should match your own. Some people like the flavour of ginger, others are not keen on it. A comfortable balance might consist of equal parts of the first three ingredients and double the amount of pepper. If you are mixing them fresh leave out ginger as it will be too wet. Instead, grind together a teaspoon each of cloves and nutmeg, a quarter cup of white peppercorns and a thumbnail-sized piece of cinnamon bark.
This is a tasty spice mixture to add to simple cake recipes, cookie dough, custards, crepes and omelets. It also goes well mixed in with ground chicken or pork.
Quatre épices dates back to the middle ages when there were relatively few spices that reached the European courts. Even after a month or so of storage, it retains a robust refreshing fragrance. It must have been a wonderful mixture back then to dispel the rather funky smells that were integral to 14th-century life or to be wrapped in a handkerchief to cover the mouth and nose as a hypothetical protection against the plague.
As living standards and local agronomy improved, herbs gradually replaced imported spices in French cooking. Quatre épices remains a fragrant echo from a period long ago when the spice trade was still crucial to the flavours of French cooking.