Spicy: The History of Spices
& the Spice Trade
Spices & Spice Trade Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, turns his attention to the routes between the East and the West that brought spices and other "exotic" ingredients to medieval tables, as he discovers the history of the Spice Roads and the key spices that travelled along them.
So if you want to know how spices were first used in the ancient world, why pepper was known as “black gold,” and why wars were fought over nutmeg, come and join us on this episode of Eat My Globe.
EAT MY GLOBE
SPICY: THE HISTORY OF SPICES AND THE SPICE TRADE
This episode is dedicated to the memory of Indian Chef, Floyd Cardoz, who passed away on the 3rd of March 2020, from infections related to Covid-19. Floyd was a master of Indian cuisine and a man of whom it could be said that spices literally flowed through his blood. I offer this episode as a mark of respect to him and all his family and friends, and the many people in the culinary world whose lives will be poorer for his leaving us way too soon. Thank you.
Hi everybody, and welcome to a new episode of “Eat My Globe” a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on this episode, we’re going to be looking at a subject that is very close to my heart. It’s a subject that covers ingredients that have not only been part of our lives since humans began cooking food but also essential when communities first began to trade with neighboring communities. It’s also a subject in which we will chat about ingredients that despite their seeming affordability and ubiquity in our markets today, were at one point the most expensive items on earth and earned vast fortunes for those lucky enough to be in control of their growth, harvesting and sale.
Indeed, it would be fair to say that these ingredients created empires and very much shaped the world we live in today. They were ingredients that were very much the reason much of the world was “discovered” – and of course I use that term “discovered” advisedly – and the reason why some of the greatest trade routes were created. They are ingredients that caused more than one major military conflict, and ingredients whose sale and purchase were at the founding roots of our current economic system. They are even items without which, certain cities, including New York City, might not exist as we know them today. Really.
And, on top of all this, this is an episode about ingredients that without which, cuisines today, around the globe, would be certainly a great deal less enjoyable. Particularly for a person like me whose Anglo-Indian heritage means that they are more than a staple, more like a necessity in my own kitchen.
So yes, you’ve guessed it. Today folks, on Eat My Globe, we’re going to look at the truly fascinating history of the spices and the spice trade.
[Simon scatting during Break Music]
If, as I have been fortunate enough to do, you have walked around a spice plantation on the island of Zanzibar and smelled rich and fragrant cinnamon as it is shaved directly from its source tree. Or you have walked around the maze-like markets of Bahrain and seen the multi-colored layers of spice mixes ready to be spooned into bags to take back to your kitchen. Or have travelled to the many spice markets in India or to the Souks of Istanbul or Marrakesh, where stall holders holler out at you as you pass hoping to entice you to buy their fragrant wares. Then, you will know that a life without spices would be a very boring one indeed.
Even if you have not yet been fortunate enough to travel, but love to cook in your own home, you know that a good array of spices is an essential for every kitchen of the would-be cook. You will also know that these days, spices are pretty readily available in every supermarket and, on the whole, very affordable.
It was not always that way. And on this episode of Eat My Globe, we are going to look at how these seemingly everyday ingredients made their way across the globe and not only into our cuisine, but also helped form the very world we live in today.
However, because spices – and the trade in them – has had so much impact on this world in which we live, before we begin to look at the spices themselves, I think it would be worthwhile to take a brief look at the earliest history of trading between individuals and between communities.
In the period of pre-history, or pre-written history, it has been theorized that the notion of trading existed in a very primitive form, and that is, in the system of bartering, which is
“the direct exchange of goods or services – without an intervening medium of exchange or money – either according to established rates of exchange or by bargaining.”
It’s basically the idea that one person might be a better hunter, another a better butcher or hide maker that led to a primitive form of trade where the goods – the meat or hides – and the services – the butchery or hide preparation – are swapped at a mutually agreeable rate.
As settled communities begin to form, this primitive trade begins to become more rationalized. People move away from the idea that a city or community had to produce anything they require themselves to one where they could form significant trading relationships with neighboring communities.
Around 770 B.C.E., we also see the development of one of the first precursors to coins to represent the goods bartered. In China, at this time, they were trading tools used in agriculture as well as other forms of agreed barter and began to replicate these in miniature versions to use as tokens to represent the actual items that they were trading. Centuries later, around 221 B.C.E., the first emperor of China instituted uniform rules to unite his kingdom – which included rules regarding money and the use of a round copper coin.
So while China may appear to have first created tokens around 770 B.C.E., they did not introduce a uniform coinage system until 221 B.C.E. Instead, one of the first actual minted coin is believed to have been created in the 6th or 5th century B.C.E. by Lydian kings, who ruled over lands that are now part of western Turkey.
It should be noted however, that while the origins of the first coins is certainly interesting, they were not a prerequisite to the earliest trading. And, one of the middle grounds between the self sufficient nature of a community to being a developed trading nation was the use of credit. As anthropologist David Graeber explains,
“most transactions were not being carried out through a medium of exchange but in reference to money that didn’t actually change hands (most gold and silver just sat around in temples).”
And we shall see that there is evidence to suggest that there was a complex series of trade routes and a strong supply chain much earlier than people might imagine.
Given the distances goods would have to travel when traded with other territories, it made sense that the most traded items were non-perishable, such as valuable metals – like gold and silver, bronze, copper, and iron – fine textiles, and for our story, precious spices. These were goods that were not only going to last the journey, or the return journey, but also would be items that were of enough worth to justify the cost of the journey and to create a profit for the merchants and their middlemen. After all, these journeys were slow and often fraught with danger.
By around 3,000 B.C.E., we see the development of the first direct long-range trading relationship between Mesopotamia – in what is now Iraq and parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey – and the Indus Valley – in what is now Pakistan.
Initially, given the lack of developed roadways, this trade would have used water vessels to seek out new territories and cities with whom to trade – at first, along the great rivers, such as the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. By around 1,000 B.C.E., China had already developed a sizeable navy that traveled long distances along its coasts.
Also, around 4,000 to 1,000 B.C.E., we begin to see the domestication of camels. In fact, the domestication of two types of camel. The dromedary or “Single Humped” camel from Arabia, and the Bactrian or “Double Humped” camel from Central Asia. Animals whose ability to carry burden, and ability to deal with travel over often arid landscapes allowed for the formation of expeditions or “caravans” that could regularly carry goods to and from places like lands bordering the Mediterranean to as far away as India. I have visited one of these caravanserai – or public structure, typically built in the outskirts of a town on a trade route, where these caravans rested – I. . . while visiting Baku in Azerbaijan, and they definitely evoke that frontier feeling. We shall post a picture of this on the website.
Simon Majumdar in front of an old Caravanserai converted into a restaurant in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Simon Majumdar inside an old Caravanserai converted into a restaurant in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Simon Majumdar inside an old Caravanserai converted into a restaurant in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Towards the end of the 2nd century B.C.E., the Han dynasty of China also began to officially open up trade with its western neighbors. Around 130 B.C.E., a caravan left China laden with goods such as silk to trade with. And that was the beginning of one of the most famous of all trading routes, the Silk Road.
In truth, the Silk Road was more than just one road. It comprised a network of routes that linked the Far East with the Middle East and then later to Europe. Along these routes, trade flowed in both directions. From the West to the East went, amongst others, weapons, horses, blankets, rugs and textiles as well as precious metals. And, in return, from the East to the West came silk, precious stones, dyes, China and porcelain, ivory and tea and gunpowder – now, we actually have a great episode on the History of Tea, so do go and check it out if you have time – and, of course, for the subject of our story, spices. And, indeed, the maritime routes of the Silk Road, also became commonly known as the Spice Routes.
Now, you might be asking why spices, including ingredients that we use today with such abandon – so America, please stop putting so much cinnamon in apple pie, blech – anyway, were considered of enough worth to be part of shipments carrying such other precious cargos? And, it’s a great question.
Before we move on, I guess as we always do, let’s be sure we define what it is we’re talking about, as the term “spice” can often be misused. Particularly, as I’ve seen people often confuse the term “herb” with the term “spice.”
The term “spice” is derived from the word “species,” which was applied in Rome and the Middle Ages to groups of food that they considered “exotic.”
Our chums at Merriam Webster define spice as,
“Any of various aromatic vegetable products (such as pepper or nutmeg) used to season or flavor foods.”
Whereas, they describe herbs as,
“A plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory or aromatic qualities.”
These definitions explain where the confusion can come from as both elements are vegetable based and both can be used, amongst other things, for their flavor and aroma.
The way I’ve seen it best described is that a herb is taken from the leaf part of a vegetable – think rosemary, parsley, sage, thyme, etcetera – whereas spices are taken from all of the non-leafy parts, which could include roots like ginger and turmeric; berries like cloves and allspice; bark like cinnamon; flowers like saffron; or seeds like cumin and coriander. In some cases, of course, plants can produce both herbs and spices from the same plant, such as cilantro or fennel.
For the reasons why spices were so important in the ancient world and beyond, we have to look not just at their culinary use but also to some of the other purposes for which they were considered important in the ancient world.
Many of the spices that we use today have their origins either in what we now call the Middle East or in territory that is now Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka.
Back then, people used spices not only for their culinary benefits, but also in medicinal preparations, perfumes and in ritual use where priests burned spices to ward off evil.
In the 6th – perhaps 7th – century B.C.E., the major medical work known as Sushruta Samhita or Sushruta’s Compendium mentions spices. This work is authored by Sushruta, an ancient Indian physician who is known as the “Father of Indian Medicine.” His Compendium lists over 300 surgical procedures, and identifies 700 herbs and spices for their use in medicine.
A 3rd century B.C.E. ancient Indian text known as the “Arthashastra” – which translates from Sanskrit as “The Science of the Material Gain” and is authored by Kautiliya, who was a philosopher and royal adviser to the Indian Emperor Chandragupta – talks about the key points to running an empire. Among the mentions of diplomacy and war, Kautiliya also mentions the people of the empire eating many spices such as cinnamon, pepper, and turmeric in their diet and when used as medicine.
As well as their use in the lands from where they originated, spices soon became a valuable part of the cultures with whom these countries traded.
Ancient Egypt sat right at the heart of the early spice trade between the Far East and the cities of ancient Greece and later, ancient Rome. This was particularly true after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt around 332 B.C.E. Although he was personally only in Egypt for a few months, his impact of reforming Egyptian society was immense. This included founding the city of Alexandria in 331 B.C.E. and purportedly designing the city itself. Building on Alexander the Great’s alleged vision for the city, Ptolemy – Alexander’s army general who became Egypt’s ruler in 323 B.C.E. – and the Ptolemaic Dynasty developed Alexandria’s port into the ancient world’s primary trading location, allowing the spices from the east to reach not only Egypt but the rest of Europe.
Spices became an important, actually, essential, part of life. Coriander, for example, was considered a spice with aphrodisiacal qualities, whereas cumin seeds were considered a sign of loyalty and faithfulness.
Cinnamon was perhaps the most prized of spices in ancient Egypt. Although, Egyptians in the time of the Pharaohs may actually have been consuming Cassia bark rather than Cinnamon. Cinnamon from the Cinnamomum zeylanicum tree originated in Sri Lanka and the Malabar coast of India, but Cassia, which comes from several trees including the Cinnamonum Aromatium tree, originated in China. But then again, it was possible that ancient Egyptians used both Cinnamon and Cassia. Interestingly, much of the cinnamon that you would purchase today would be of the Cassia family, rather than the cinnamon from Sri Lanka.
If you ever do go to a spice store, look out for the real stuff from Sri Lanka. It is delicious and noticeably different.
In any event, traders transported Cinnamon and Cassia over perilous and arduous land routes. They were significantly more expensive than other spices and subsequently only used by those in the upper echelons of society rather than by those lower down the social scales. The Arab traders who would bring these spices to the west would often offer up wonderous stories about the dangers of collecting these spices to help drive up the prices when they were sold.
In the 4th century B.C.E. work, the “History of Herodotus,” the Greek historian offers up two stories of the tales that Arab traders wove. The first story goes a little bit like this:
“We have described how the Arabians procure their frankincense; their mode of obtaining the cassia is this: – The whole of their body, and the face, except the eyes, they cover with skins of different kinds; they thus proceed to the place where it grows, which is in a marsh not very deep, but infested by a winged species of animal much resembling a bat, very strong, and making a hideous noise; they protect their eyes from these, and then gather the cassia.”
And the second story goes like this:
“Their manner of collecting the cinnamon is still more extraordinary. In what particular spot it is produced, they themselves are unable to certify. There are some who assert that it grows in the region where Bacchus was educated, and their mode of reasoning is by no means improbable. These affirm that the vegetable substance, which we, as instructed by the Phenicians, call cinnamon, is by certain large birds carried to their nests constructed of clay, and placed in the cavities of inaccessible rocks. To procure it thence, the Arabians have contrived this strategem: – they cut in very large pieces the dead bodies of oxen, asses, or other beasts of burden, and carry them near these nests: they then retire to some distance; the birds soon fly to the spot, and carry these pieces of flesh to their nests, which not being able to support the weight, fall in pieces to the ground. The Arabians take this opportunity of gathering the cinnamon, which they afterwards dispose of to different countries.”
Fantastic – or fantastical stories, right? But it does show you just how important these spices were.
Once cinnamon finally reached Egypt, it had a number of uses. It was used as an ingredient in perfume. In his 4th or 3rd century B.C.E. work, “De Odoribus” or “On Odors,” the well-traveled philosopher and chum of Aristotle, Theophrastus, writes of a perfume called, “The Egyptian,” that is costly to make.
“The ‘Egyptian’ is made from several ingredients, including cinnamon and myrrh. . . . the Egyptian [and another perfume] are the most troublesome to make, since no others involve the mixture of so many and such costly ingredients.”
Another key Egyptian use for cinnamon was in the process of embalming, that is, the mummification of the bodies after death. First century B.C.E. Greek author Diodorus Siculus wrote in his major work, “The Library of History,” about the Egyptian post-death process saying,
“The men called embalmers, however, are considered worthy of every honour and consideration, associating with the priests and even coming and going in the temples without hindrance, as being undefiled. When they have gathered to treat the body after it has been slit open, one of them thrusts his hand through the opening in the corpse into the trunk and extracts everything but the kidneys and heart, and another one cleanses each of the viscera, washing them in palm wine and spices. And in general, they carefully dress the whole body for over thirty days, first with cedar oil and certain other preparations, and then with myrrh, cinnamon, and such spices as have the faculty not only of preserving it for a long time but also of giving it a fragrant odour.”
The many mentions of spices in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, reflect their availability in ancient times. However, it is interesting to note that amongst all their other uses, there are only a few references to spices being used as a flavoring in food and drink, one of which occurs in the Song of Songs Chapter 8, verse 2.
“I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother – she who used to teach me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranate.”
Primarily, the spices are mentioned in similar terms of their uses elsewhere such as medicine, perfumes, or in ritual use, as well as being used in the preparation of anointing oils.
As I mentioned earlier, although Alexander the Great’s forays east in 332 B.C.E. and his establishment of Alexandria in Egypt in 331 B.C.E. opened up the routes for the flow of spices to ancient Greece and ancient Rome, the ancient Greeks were already knowledgeable of spices.
Theophrastus, who we mentioned earlier with reference to perfumes in Egypt, and who is often referred to as the “Father of Botany,” wrote a major work around the 4th or 3rd century B.C.E. called, “De Causis Plantarum” or Enquiry into Plants. In it, he gives a detailed account of plants that were grown in Greek territories as well as listing many spices that had become available in Greece after Alexander’s conquests. He gives one of the first detailed descriptions of pepper. In fact, he talks about two styles of pepper. One that is round and not unlike the one we use today, and the other, a more bitter version, which we can still find today and it’s called “long pepper.”
Indeed, ancient Greeks valued spices for their many, shall we say, “varied,” uses.
According to the book, “Mediterranean Urbanization: 800-600 BC,” the first mention of spices we find in ancient Greek literature associated them with
It comes in the poem, “The Wedding of Hector and Andromache,” from the 6th century B.C.E. poet, Sappho of Lesbos, where the author talks of
“perfume and cassia and incense were mixed and all the older women shouted out, and all the men cried out a fair loud song…..”
Of course, the ancient Greeks also used spices for medicinal use.
The “Father of Medicine,” Hippocrates, who lived from 460 B.C.E. to 370 B.C.E., spoke about many spices in his writings, including ginger, cinnamon and coriander, giving particular note to how they should be prepared for medicinal use.
The ancient Greeks did have culinary uses for spices though, which is just as well as this is a podcast about food. The 4th century B.C.E. Greek – by way of Sicily – writer, Archestratus of Gela, who is one of the first people in history we could justifiably recognize as a true travel gourmand – my kind of person – wrote a now lost poem called “Hēdypatheia” or “The Life of Luxury.” In it, he lists where to find and how to prepare the best food, particularly fish. We know about it because 62 fragments of the book are quoted later – around 200 C.E. – by another author, Athenaeus, who must have had a copy of “Hēdypatheia” and quoted Archestratus in Athenaeus’ own book, “Deipnosophistai” or “The Deipnosophists” or “The Gastronomers.” In it, Athenaeus notes that Archestratus makes reference to a fish called sharp-toothed dog or Carcharias, which apparently is a type of shark.
“In fair Torone's town 'tis best to cook
The hollow entrails of the sharp-tooth'd dog.
Then strew the fish with cummin, sparing be
Of salt, then roast him, and add nothing else
Saving some sea-green oil. Then when 'tis done,
Serve him up with some little seasoning.
. . .
'Tis but few mortals know this wondrous food;
And those who have thick stupid heavy souls,,
Refuse to taste it, but are all alarm'd,
Because they say this dog's a cannibal,
And feeds on human flesh. But there is not
A fish that swims which does not like man's flesh
If he can only chance to come across it.”
There are many species of sharks that are now on the endangered species list, but apparently, back in the days when they were eaten, according to Archestratus, they go very well with cumin.
Where the ancient Greeks were quite sparing with the use of spices in food and tended to add them only when they believed that the spices were going to add some medicinal benefit, the Romans began to add spices to their food for pleasurable reasons.
The Romans, who had greater sea power that the ancient Greeks, were able to create direct trade routes with India, and this increased their consumption of spices, particularly pepper. This was a journey that originally took two years, hence the cost of spices that were imported.
However, in the middle of the 1st century C.E., a Greek sailor by the name of Hippalus, discovered how the Arab traders who had tried to keep a monopoly on the trade, used the monsoon winds to speed up their journey and the round trip was cut to a year. This led to an explosion in the import and consumption of the Romans’ favorite spice, as well as others that were used. So great must the demand for spices have become, Emperor Domitian created a special market and storage place in the ancient Roman Forum known as the “Horrea Piperataria” for its sale.
In the major culinary work of the Roman period, “De re Coquinaria” or “Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome,” attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, who lived in the 1st century C.E. under the reign of Tiberius, the author presents around 500 recipes. And his top 10 most used ingredients include black pepper and cumin. Even Apicius’ “Home-Made Sweets” recipe, or “Dulcia Domestica,” contained pepper.
On top of which, Apicius was fond of adding spices to drink. In his book, he gives a recipe for a drink known as “Conditum Paradoxum,” which was a spiced wine; this contains wine, honey, crushed pepper, and saffron.
“THE COMPOSITION OF [this] EXCELLENT SPICED WINE [is as follows]. INTO A COPPER BOWL PUT 6 SEXTARII OF HONEY AND 2 SEXTARII OF WINE; HEAT ON A SLOW FIRE, CONSTANTLY STIRRING THE MIXTURE WITH A WHIP. AT THE BOILING POINT ADD A DASH OF COLD WINE, RETIRE FROM STOVE AND SKIM. REPEAT THIS TWICE OR THREE TIMES, LET IT REST TILL THE NEXT DAY, AND SKIM AGAIN. THEN ADD 4 OZS. OF CRUSHED PEPPER, 3 SCRUPLES OF MASTICH, A DRACHM EACH OF [nard or laurel] LEAVES AND SAFFRON, 5 DRACHMS OF ROASTED DATE STONES CRUSHED AND PREVIOUSLY SOAKED IN WINE TO SOFTEN THEM. WHEN THIS IS PROPERLY DONE ADD 18 SEXTARII OF LIGHT WINE. TO CLARIFY IT PERFECTLY, ADD [crushed] CHARCOAL TWICE OR AS OFTEN AS NECESSARY WHICH WILL DRAW [the residue] TOGETHER [and carefully strain or filter through the charcoal].”
Apicius also used other spices in dishes that seem to have a medicinal purpose. One of my favorites is known as “Oxyporum,” which means “easy passage,” and appears to be an early recipe for a laxative or a dish to ease the system. The dish involves plump dates and honey as well as saltpeter and plenty of pepper. It also requires cumin, which is interesting particularly as Apicius not only tells us how much of the spice to use – 2 ounces – but also the locations of the best sources of cumin to use. For the record, he says,
“Aethiopian, Syrian or Libyan.”
Which shows that not only was the use of spices very prevalent in Roman cuisine, but also that the trade was sophisticated enough that they had multiple sources and preferences for the type of spice they used, which I think is a sign of a robust culinary supply chain.
Not everyone was fond of the cost of this supply chain, however. Pliny The Elder was so alarmed at how much was being spent by the empire on the spice trade that in his work, “The Natural History,” he declared,
“It is worthy to be observed, that there is not a Year but it costs our State to furnish into India, 500,000 Sesterces, (fifty millions of Sesterces.) For which the Indians send back Merchandise, which at Rome is sold for a hundred times as much as it cost.”
But the rich people of ancient Rome seemed to still pay that cost, and as Reay Tannahill put it in her book, “Food in History,”
“Indian Pepper was so important that it was numbered amongst the five essential luxuries on which the whole foreign trade of the empire was to be based.”
Tannahill notes that the remaining other luxuries included silk from China, ivory from Africa, amber from Germany, and incense from Arabia.
And it’s a passion that the Romans passed on to many of the people with whom they had contact – be they the people they had conquered or people who were challenging their might in Roman territories.
In 410 C.E., the Visigoths, a Germanic people under their King, Alaric, laid siege to Rome. The Greek historian Zosimus says that, in the form of a ransom, the people of Rome agreed to pay Alaric and his men
“After long discussions on both sides, it was at length agreed, that the city should give five thousand pounds of gold, and thirty thousand of silver, four thousand silk robes, three thousand scarlet fleeces, and three thousand pounds of pepper.”
While the ancient Romans did spread their love of spices to the far reaches of their empire, the reality is, however, that during the period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, in 476 C.E., we begin to see the Arabian Islamic countries of the Middle East being the primary source of spices into Europe, particularly with the spice trade going through Constantinople – present day Istanbul in Turkey – which was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Spices also arrived in Europe via those people who returned to Europe after the Crusades, which began in 1095. Through the period of the Middle Ages, various principalities battled to develop the key trading relationships for spices with the Arabic traders. The principals among these were the maritime states, such as Venice and Genoa, who by the 10th century had developed substantial trading relationships and wealth through the trade of spices. The amount of money to be earned was astronomical.
On their journey from India and Asia, spices had often changed hands through so many traders, all wanting to make profits, that the price for a spice could easily be as high as 40 times the amount paid when it was first purchased at source. The wealthy of the Medieval world, however, were willing to pay such a price, not only for the pleasure of using spice in their food and for its medicinal benefits, but also because the appearance of spices in their household would be the equivalent today of parking a Ferrari in your driveway – a symbol of your wealth and status. However, as European powers started colonizing distant lands, spices also began to find their way into the cuisines of the not-so-wealthy.
It’s worth stopping here for a second to dispel one of the oldest culinary myths and that is that spices were used in Medieval times to cover up the smell and taste of meat that was old or spoiled. To the contrary, records show that medieval laws actually prohibited this kind of practice and that any spoiled meat – even when covered with spices – would still result in food poisoning. So, covering up bad meat with spices that are very expensive does not make any sense at all.
It’s also worth noting that the concept of spices being used as a preservative of meat does not seem to have much historical substance either. The only spice – as we saw from talking about embalming in ancient Egypt – that had any properties in preservation would have been cinnamon, and that would have been far too expensive to use in such a lowly task. Instead, it would have been salt, vinegar, garlic and mustard, or dehydration that would have helped store meat in the days before refrigeration.
If you have chance, please do check out my friend, Professor Paul Freedman’s excellent blog on the Yale University website, called “Spices, How the Search for Flavors Influenced Our World.” We’ll add the link to the annotated transcript. In it, he talks not only about how the initial use of spices in Medieval Europe was both culinary and medicinal – often in the same dish – but also about how,
“culinary stalwarts as pepper, cinnamon and ginger were sold in many varieties and in different medical prescriptions.”
He also takes us through some examples of the 100 or so medieval cookery books that are still in existence today as an example of how spices would have been used throughout Europe.
In 1520, Ruperto De Nola, also known as Maestre Robert, a Catalan chef for his patron the King of Naples, wrote the “Libre del Coch.” In this recipe book, he lists about 200 recipes –many of which contain ingredients such as cinnamon, ginger, saffron and sugar, which at the time was considered a spice.
In another example, Freedman also lists spices ordered for the wedding of George “The Rich,” Duke of Bavaria and his intended bride, Jadwiga of Poland in 1475. This list includes 386 pounds of pepper, 286 pounds of ginger, 257 pounds of saffron, 205 pounds of cinnamon and 85 pounds of cloves and nutmeg.
Don’t tell the Mrs., but that’s my kind of wedding.
The rivalry between maritime states, particularly Genoa and Venice, became increasingly hostile. And, towards the tail end of the 14th century, we see the two economic powers coming to blows during the Naval War of Chioggia, which lasted from 1378-1381. This war saw the dominance in the region pass from the former to the latter and Venice having a monopoly of the spice trade into Europe for almost the next century.
European states began to look for ways to source spices without the cost of purchasing them at often exorbitant prices through a Venetian middleman. In part, this was because of the increasing demand in Europe for spices. And, in part, it is because the pressures put on the supply of spices via the traditional land routes. The Silk Roads had been in operation since their opening by the Han Dynasty in 130 B.C.E., but were closed when much of the area through which they travelled became part of the Ottoman Empire. They finally ceased to operate in 1453.
It might be too reductive to suggest, as some have done, that this closure prompted the era of Discovery. However, we definitely do start to see the beginning of a period of history that would completely change the world we live in today. As explorers from other nations began to build ships that were capable of long-distance travel which they hoped, amongst other entrepreneurial adventures, would take them to spice producing lands. These would be lengthy and dangerous travels from which many would never return – such as when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan lost his life in the Mactan Islands in the Philippines while looking for an alternative trade route – but for the successful ones, the riches and rewards could be astronomical.
Which reminds me, I recently visited the Mactan Islands and the location of where the Philippine natives fought Magellan. And we shall post a link on the website of some of the pictures the Mrs. took when we were there. So please do go and check it out.
The statue of Lapu Lapu -- the local chieftain who is said to have killed Magellan -- in the foreground, and an obelisk memorial to Magellan in the background. The statue and the obelisk are located in Mactan Island, Cebu, Philippines, the site where Magellan died.
A mural depicting the arrival of Magellan in Cebu, Philippines.
The wooden cross is said to contain a piece of the original cross brought by Magellan to the Philippines.
The first nation to set out on a quest for its own source of spices was Spain in 1492 under the command of Christopher Columbus. He did not find India on this voyage, although he claimed in a letter that he had sailed into the
But, he did return with news of an island that,
“…abounds in various kinds of species, gold and metals.”
And, the period of global colonization had begun.
Another explorer, Vasco de Gama, had reached India by 1498, but was chased from the port of Calicut by Muslim merchants fearful of losing their trading monopoly and had to flee.
It was in 1501 that a Portuguese expedition under the command of Pedro Alvares Cabral brought the first spices directly from India to Europe. And with subsequent Portuguese expeditions, it would be fair to say that by the 16th century, Portugal was in control of the spice trade. And the Portuguese were responsible for importing about three quarters of all the pepper – and probably a similar amount of other spices – to Europe during that century.
By the 17th century, other nations with developing oversees interests, including the British and the Dutch, began to see the opportunity to get in on the action and challenge the Portuguese for their dominance of the spice trade world. In 1602, the Dutch government granted under oath of loyalty to the Dutch government, a private company, the Dutch East India Company or the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie – so I hope my Dutch friends will forgive me for that horrible slaughtering of their language. . . but anyway – to begin a specific mission to develop its trade in the Indian Ocean with a monopoly over trade agreements.
The operation was a great success. The Dutch ships, manpower and weapons were better and more sophisticated than their Portuguese rivals, and their ruthless treatment of local chiefs and their ability to manipulate production and supply meant that the Dutch East India Company began to acquire vast amounts of wealth.
In 1606, the Dutch East India Company entered into a treaty with one Sultan of Ternate that gave them a monopoly over trade from North Moluccas – these were the Indonesian Islands and part of the Malay archipelago – which gave them complete control over the trade of cloves. By 1609, they also occupied the Banda Islands – another group of Indonesian islands to the south of Ternate – which gave them control of the nutmeg trade.
They were not alone in their attempts to control the spice trade, however. The British, had already formed their own East India Company in 1600 to act as an agent for British imperialism in Southeast Asia and India. They too had a monopoly from their government, which inevitably brought them into regular conflict with their Dutch rivals.
Between 1652 – the beginning of the first Anglo Dutch War – and 1784 – the end of the fourth Anglo Dutch War – there was a constant struggle between the Dutch and the British to see who could control the international trade, including the spice trade. Perhaps the most well-known conflict came with what I have heard informally being called, the Nutmeg Wars.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began almost two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can, get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on the historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So thank you very much, and keep listening.
In the 17th century, nutmeg was one of the most expensive ingredients and arguably, the most expensive any thing in the world with prices that could be only a small amount less than those charged for gold. For example, famed London diarist Samuel Pepys, who lived from 1633 to 1703, used nutmeg as a medicine for his cold and his ulcer. Others used nutmeg as an aphrodisiac, to ward off the plague, and as a perfume. So much so that some gentlemen in France would carry around their own personalized nutmeg grater to show that they were people of wealth.
Nutmeg was an extremely profitable crop with ten pounds of nutmeg being purchased in the spice islands for less than an English penny but being sold back in England for the equivalent of 2 pounds. That 2 pounds at the beginning of the 17th century, for example, is worth about 270 pounds at today’s value, and was the equivalent of 40 days wages for a skilled workman and could buy you a cow. At the time, nutmeg only grew on the Banda islands, of which the Dutch controlled most, and the British held one small island known as Run with whom they had an agreement since 1603.
The two nations skirmished over the small island for years, finally reaching an agreement at the Treaty of Breda in 1667 during which the British agreed to “swap” their interest in the Island of Run for a small fur trapping island the Dutch Director General of New Netherland Peter Minuit had allegedly purchased from Native Americans in 1626 for 60 guilders – or for $24 worth of goods. Mind you, the National Museum of the American Indian points out
“to date, no deed of land transfer, formal title or bill of sale has ever surfaced to serve as proof of this purchase by the Dutch from the Indians. So is this transaction legal?”
Valid points indeed. You might also find interesting that that Native American island that the Dutch swapped with the British for the island of Run was then called New Amsterdam, and subsequently renamed by the British as New York. So there you have it folks, New York exists because of nutmeg. One of the great historical stories.
The Dutch zealously protected their monopoly over nutmeg from that period, covering every nutmeg in lime before it could be transported, so it could not be replanted, and imposing the death penalty on anyone who tried to remove the plants from the islands. Eventually, however, they were to lose their monopoly when one of those great stories of culinary espionage occurred.
It starts with a former French missionary turned botanist who lost an arm during a fight with English ships and who called Pierre Poivre or Peter Pepper – yes really, that’s the name of this fascinating fellow, and, fun fact, he was also the inspiration for the famous rhyme, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” You all know it.
Well, in 1748, he began a plan on how he could steal nutmeg plants from the Dutch for planting in French territories. With help from a network of friends he met during his travels in Southeast Asia, including Chinese traders and even traders from Moluccas itself; and Filipino, Spanish and Portuguese allies in the region, he made his first few attempts using Manila as a transit point for the smuggled goods. The failures of these first few attempts were based on many events including a Spanish merchant with loose lips who basically made the secret mission public knowledge, promises of “true” nutmeg plants that turned out to be inferior species of nutmeg, and a botanist nemesis he suspected of sabotaging his attempts to replant nutmeg seedlings. In the end, Poivre had to play the long game – is that the long pepper game, maybe? Anyway. He maintained his network of friends from his earlier attempts, which finally culminated in a reliable intelligence of where the French could send ships in the Moluccas where the Dutch were not so vigilant. And finally, in 1770, Poivre’s agents successfully smuggled hundreds of nutmeg plants. This theft allowed the French to plant them in Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Zanzibar. Such a fascinating story.
It seems odd to us now that wars could be fought over something that is now so common place, but in the 16th and 17th centuries, spices really did begin to change the world – for better or for worse. In the 18th century, however, the passion for spices began to decline. The number of colonizing nations bringing spices to Europe back from Asia, and the fact that they now had been planted in so many more territories, meant they were more readily available. Plus, the colonizing nations began to realize more profits shipping other items from Asia such as silks and textiles, than they could make from just shipping spices.
And, by the 19th and 20th centuries, as commodity production began to come into play with so many of our food stuffs, it was possible to purchase versions of spices produced far away from a spice’s initial place of origin that it might lack the true taste of the original, but could be purchased at a fraction of the price.
Which brings us to today. Despite these declines from their 17th century highpoint, the seasonings and spice industry in the 21st century is still an important global business, which in 2017 was worth just over $15 billion and is expected to grow to almost $21 billion by 2024. I think it’s an important trade both for those nations who produce the spices and for those nations, such as the USA, that buy them both to use individually at home or for volume use in food production.
Which seems like a good place to stop right now.
If this episode has made you want to go and check out your spice collection to see what you’re missing, I really recommend you go and check out some of the specialist spice distributors who will offer versions of spices from their original locations. The smells and tastes will be like nothing you have ever tried before. And as you smell and taste them, think about how New York would not be the New York we know today without nutmeg.
See you next week folks.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: December 7, 2020
Last Updated: January 9, 2021
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.