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 wll.
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 the world. In many ways, spices are responsible for discovering the world we know.
A brief definition: while the whole delicious range of flavorings are sometimes called spices, these days herbs are defined as the leaves and seeds of temperate zone plants. They can be used fresh or dried, whole or chopped. Think parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. <g> And dill seed and caraway and mustard and more.
Spices are the bark, seeds, or roots of tropical plants. They are generally dried and often ground to powder. For example, whole stick cinnamon might be tossed into hot cider, but more often we use ground cinnamon in baking. Nutmeg is a sort of tree nut, while the spice called mace is made from the red husk that grows around the nutmeg. Cloves are the dried flower buds of a tropical evergreen. Spices had to last well so they could be transported great distances without losing their potency.
The most coveted of spices originated in legendary places far, far from Western Europe, so they were rare and precious. The most exotic of all came from the Spice Islands, a cluster in the eastern section of the vast archipelago that is now called Indonesia.
Spices were an important cargo in the great caravan routes that ran from Asia to Europe, and for a long time Arab traders maintained a tight monopoly on the spice trade. Because spice were so valuable, attempts at monopoly were made over and over, with varying degrees of success.
The trade is thousands of years old, with the beginnings lost in the mists of time. Herodotus wrote of spices (rather inaccurately) and legend says that when the Queen of Sheba called on King Solomon, she brought gifts of gold and spices.
The Nabateans, who built the magical city of Petra in what is now Jordan were major spice traders–and even two thousand years ago, there was worry about the balance of trade since too much of the Roman Empire’s gold was flowing east to pay for the luxuries of silk and spices. For a time, the Romans established their own sea routes to India, and a Greeek merchant discovered the secret of the trade winds that had helped carry Arab traders for centuries: the monsoons reverse direction and by sailing with the winds in both directions, the voyage from the Red Sea coast to India and return could be made much more quickly and safely.
With the fall of Rome, trade with the east declined markedly and only small amounts of wildly expensive spices made their way to Europe. A few pounds of cloves or nutmeg or cinnamon could make a man’s fortune. In a great house, the spices were kept in small chests under lock and key, with only the mistress and perhaps a trusted housekeeper having access. Peppercorns were used as currency, and even as bribes to judges in court cases. (That’s a nutmeg on its tree to the right, with the husk that will become mace.)
The Crusades revived the interaction of East and West, even if it was at the wrong end of a sword. Venice was the main distributor of spices in Europe because of their relationships with Arab traders, and spices helped create the city-state’s great wealth.
The lust for wealth is a tremendous incentive, of course. Marco Polo and his kin headed overland to China looking spices and other portable riches. The European craving for spices grew. Pepperers’ Guilds became Spicers’ Guilds. And by the fifteenth century , the drive for spices helped launch the great Age of Discovery. Vasco de Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, and other great navigators set off into the great and perilous unknown. Christopher Columbus was looking for India and spices when he wandered into North America. (It wasn’t a total loss, though—allspice comes from the West Indies, and it’s a spice equal to any that come from the Spice Islands.)
A powerful scent is one of the chief characteristic of spices, and scent is the most primitive of our senses. Certain aromas have the power to jerk us back to earlier times and places, just as tastes and scents immediately conjure particular cultures. India is known for the mixture of spices we call curry (though a good Indian cook will probably uses several individual spices rather than the commercial blend we call “curry powder.” )
The first time I tasted the unique dish known as Cincinnati chili, I knew that it wasn’t Mexican in origin but Greek because of the blend of spices used to season it. (Great stuff, too! I wish Cincinnati chili was more widely available.) And Mexican food is noted for the distinctive pepper based seasons–but not the same kind of peppers that make peppercorns.
In Amsterdam several years ago, I wanted to visit an Indonesian restaurant because I was writing The Bartered Bride, which was set partially in Indonesia. We found a nice little Indonesian restaurant (with an open door and a cat that wandered casually in and out), and ordered a rice table—that is, a mixture of Indonesian dishes. With my first bite I was taken back many years to my first visit to Amsterdam, and my first taste of Indonesian food. There is a particular blend of spices that says “Indonesia” as clearly as curry says India. Every culture has its tastes and special ingredients, and I for one give thanks for the increasing variety of restaurants and cuisines available to us.
I could go on and on about spices, but I’ll spare you. <G> What are your favorite spices and herbs? Do you have stories about them, memories invoked by particular tastes? Please share!