The Romance of Spices Revisited

Cat_243_doverBy Mary Jo

I'm in the crazed mode of finishing a book, so I'm invoking Wench Privilege by re-running an old blog, this one about the spice trade.  What gave me the idea was going out to my car after exercising at Curves, and smelling something sweet and tangy from the McCormick spice company headquarters about three miles to the north.  Inspiring!

++++Originally published August 3, 2007++++++

I’m sitting on my screened porch on  a summer morning, sipping coffee, watching birds, and enjoying the scent of pepper that floats through the summer air. This is unusual—more often, I would smell allspice, which carries well. 

No, I am not imaging the tantalizing fragrance in the air, despite having an over-active writer’s imagination.  The world’s largest spice company, McCormick’s, is headquartered a few miles north of my house.  My hometown of Baltimore has been one of America’s most important ports since its founding, so it’s not surprising that the city is home to several spice companies

Spices are something we take for granted, like being able to listen to music whenever we want.  We can stop in the baking aisle of any supermarket and have our choice of dozens of spices and herbs.  But once the spice trade was the most lucrative, and perhaps dangerous, in Mccormicks_logothe world.  In many ways, spices are responsible for discovering the world we know. 

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Spicing Up the Regency

DSCN1964Joanna here.

 I was fumbling through my spice shelf the other day, as one does, trying to decide whether I wanted to make some kind of fancy beet salad to go with my last burrata cheese ball — this turned out to be a non-problem because I left Catonporch5the cheese on the counter while I was thinking all this and the cat jumped up, seized the cheese ball in her little white teeth, and went running off to scarf it down in secret under the forsythias.

Anyway, I got to wondering which of my spices I got here in my house would be in the kitchen cabinet of your well-supplied Regency housewife or cook.

Up above there’s my spice cabinet, which I have over the sink because having it over the stove is harder on the spices, them getting heated up and damp from the steam and all. As you will see, there is a bit of a crowd of spices.

So what spices and herbs do I hold in common with my Regency housewife?

She would have had access to all the herbs that grew in hedgerows and kitchen gardens since the first modern people walked across a land bridge into the British Isles about 40,000 years ago … though they didn’t so much go in for DSCN1986kitchen garden at that time.

A Regency woman would have easily matched my pitiful little array of traditional herbs. See them pictured in a line: sage, rosemary, mint, thyme, and oregano. She would have called the oregano ‘wild marjoram’, just to make everybody’s life interesting.

Wiki HerbsThe Regency housewife would have had many more of these traditional herbs at hand — dried or fresh parsley, (thus the ‘parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme’ that are headed to Scarborough Fair,) ordinary marjoram, dill, sweet basil, coriander, (of which more below,) fennel, garlic, scallions, mustard, saffron, and caraway. And she’d use herbs we don’t necessarily associate with everyday cuisine any more, like marigolds, lavender, roses, and violets, tansy, and angelica.


Coriandrum_sativum_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-193Speaking of coriander (and I add this because I find it charming and when was the last time you were charmed by an herb?):


The Plant that bears Coriander is cultivated in Gardens, upon the Account of its Seed, which is much us'd for Food, and Physic ; they are us'd in Comfits, Spirituous Liquors, and Beer, They are green upon the Plant, but grow whitish as they dry ; they are of an aromatic and very agreeable Taste and Smell; but for the rest of the Plant, it has an unpleasant Smell, like that of Buggs, and that is the Reason that 'tis neither us'd in Physic, nor Food.
                            A Treatise of All Sorts of Food, Louis Lémery, 1745


Now we come to the fine selection of spices that would have been imported DSCN1976into England in 1800. Me, I have nutmeg, ginger, (I have crystalized ginger also,) cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, cloves, black pepper, and sesame oil. These would all have been readily available in the Regency … maybe a bit of a luxury, but one a lot of folks could indulge in. My two-centuries-ago cook could have had all those imported goodies and a double handful more that I don’t buy — tumeric, cassia, allspice, anise, caraway, sesame seeds, and mace ….

There are doubtless others I’m not calling to mind.

DSCN1978What else? Dried lemon peel, which she would probably have made for herself from imported lemons she bought in the market.

Salt, DSCN1981necessary to man from the dawn of time. Hers would have been made by the seashore in England. DSCN1980

And I have a bit of cherry cordial. The early 19th century cook would  probably have a number of liquors and used them with a freer hand than I do.

WhaDSCN1979t do I have that wouldn’t have found a place in the Regency kitchen? My food dyes for one thing. These are synthetic formulations made from aromatic petroleum products. Not so 1800-ish.


And then there’s the exotics. My shelves hold a little flock of spices and herbs for dishing up Indian and Mexican foods. Lookit here. Red pepper, garam masala, cumin, cilantro, cardamom, paprika and soy sauce. In the 1800’s household it was still a bit early for the ordinary cook to be putting together currieDSCN1995s, mulligatawny soup, and kedgeree. There was no stir-fry with snow-peas. Tex-Mex was not even on the horizon.

So there you have it. I peek into the cupboard of a London housewife in the past and it looks pretty familiar. If she glanced at my shelves it wouldn’t be all that strange.


Are you a spicy-foods person? What spices and herbs do you use a lot? Any new ones you’ve just discovered?

One random commenter will win a book of mine — any book of their choice, including the upcoming Rogue Spy if they are willing to wait 60 days till I get some copies.