The name spice is derived from the word ‘species’, which was applied to groups of exotic foodstuffs in the Middle Ages. Aromatically scented herbal products have been used since ancient times to flavour foods and for preparing incenses and perfumes. Exotic imports obtained from Asia were particularly appealing to Greeks and Romans, who spent vast fortunes on trade with Arabia, which was the centre of the spice trade.
If the appearance of spices were to reflect their real importance in the history of the world, the bottles of spices would be filled with bright glittery substances, diamonds, rubies, emeralds or gold would be appropriate. When you opened the bottle, a poof of vibrantly coloured, mystically fragrant, magical smoke would slowly billow softly throughout the room. Spices have been the inspiration for trade, exploration, war, and poetry since the beginning of civilization.
Today, many of the valued old spices, such as nutmeg, have lost their fabulous attraction, while the more lowly garlic, peppers and other commonplace kitchen herbs have become, paradoxically, increasingly popular. It is now impossible to give a strict definition of a spice: the word suggests an imported tropical herbal plant or some part of it that is valued for providing colour and super flavouring along with stimulating aroma’s for use in cooking and in condiments, as well as in candies, cosmetics, fragrances and medications. A host of such products utilize spicy herbs varying from aniseed to wasabi.
Archaeologists discovered spices in Egyptian tombs as early as 3000 BC. The strong preservative quality of many spices made them ideal for embalming. Many of the spices had strong connections or affiliations with different Gods. Therefore in addition to the embalming qualities of the spices, their fragrance was also thought to favour the Gods, offering one a better chance of celestial help in travels into the afterlife. Spices played a prevalent part in man’s daily life – and death. So it is most likely that the most important aspect of spices in history was their ability to heal and perpetuate life.
Again, it is important to remember, even though spices were exotic and flavourful and sure to open new culinary worlds, the primary reason spices were sought after was their use as medicine.
Rare spices were utilized in cooking as a sign of wealth in Rome, and later in Medieval and Renaissance times, and the privileged developed an exaggerated taste for spicy foods.The need to supply European markets spurred explorations, culminating in the extraordinary voyages that resulted in the discovery of the New World and demonstrated that the globe could be circumnavigated by sea. The fabled Spice Islands of Indonesia became the site of horrendous colonial practices by competing European powers.
The desire to control spice sources took the British to India, the Portuguese to Brazil, the Spanish to Central and South America and to the Philippines, the French to Africa, and the Dutch to Indonesia. However, each country feuded with others to establish a monopolistic control over the spice-growing regions and the major trade routes.
Local and inexpensive herbs and flavours, such as garlic, onion and horseradish, sufficed for the poorer people of old Europe, but influential, rich hosts would wish to impress or politically intimidate their guests with the liberal use of rare exotic spices. While the peril of adventurous travel was great, the rewards came in rare and beautiful forms, gold, silver, ivory, ebony, spices, rare animals and new plant forms. As man’s ability to travel grew, so did his discovery of new and exotic lands. Man seems to have always sought after the unobtainable, and those lucky enough to have these precious commodities were wealthy men, men of nobility, royalty, high ranking church officials and a few very shrewd and clever merchants and businessmen.
Chocolate pods at one time were so valued that they also were used as the equivalent of money by Aztec’s. The excessive value of spices in Europe is revealed by the fact that Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe started with five ships which were supplied to last their 250 or so crew members for many months; the expedition limped home with only one ship and an emaciated crew of 18 surviving men who returned to Spain in 1522 after their three-year horrendous expedition. Despite their enormous losses, the incredibly valuable cargo of 50,000 pounds of cloves and nutmegs from the Molucca’s made the enterprise seem like a commercial success.
The fascinating tribute to the value of spices, such as peppercorn, was their acceptance in medieval times as a substitute for money; thus, some landlords would be paid a “peppercorn rent”. Conquerors would accept spice stores as booty or as a victory tax. The flow of pepper along trade routes provided opportunities for trade taxes to be imposed at major trading cities by Arabians, Egyptians, Turks and Venetians.
The increasing custom duties in the 15th century resulted in a 30-fold rise in the price of Indian pepper, at a time when the social desire for pepper and other exotic spices was maximal. Changes in pepper prices had an effect on national economies and on aggressive reactions comparable to that seen in the Western appetite for fuel oil today.
Indeed, the term spice could include chocolate, coffee, kola nuts, tea, wine and olive oil, since these mouthwatering delicacies are generally imported from tropical or sunny countries into the more temperate countries of northern Europe and North America to give a zestful taste to food products and beverages.
A spice may be available in several forms: fresh, whole dried, or pre-ground dried. Generally, spices are dried. A whole dried spice has the longest shelf life, so it can be purchased and stored in larger amounts. Some spices are rarely available either fresh or whole, but in ground form. Small seeds, such as fennel and mustard seeds, are used both whole and in powder form.