The fascinating history of spices
Though spices have been part of everyday cooking for millennia, they are still unknown in many respects. Indeed, cooking, and specifically local cuisine, would not be what it is today without the essential contribution of spices that gives each region a special and often unique character. The geopolitical world map would certainly be different today without their existence.
Spices have been available in folk pharmacopoeia since time immemorial and used to preserve food or enhance flavour. As in the case of pepper, spice has even become an official currency. They are linked to some of the greatest explorers the world has ever known. Indeed, the spice trade was the stated (and sometimes unstated) goal of many an expedition led by Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Vasco de Gama, Magellan and many others. When Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies in 1492, he was looking for the spice route that would lead him straight to India.
Sold at the price of gold for centuries, spices were the subject of territorial wars between the major colonial powers and plantations were jealously protected. This is particularly true of nutmeg and clove, both native to the Moluccas, an archipelago in Indonesia. A monopoly on those two spices was held by the Dutch in the 1600s. They were cultivated on islands that were easy to defend, small territories where nearly all the trees and plants were cut down or uprooted to make way for precious nutmeg and clove trees. These plantations were under heavy military protection and locals who did not want to work there were simply eliminated. However, it was inevitable these coveted spices would start to be cultivated around the world and this practice put an end to the monopolies of the time.
Today, spices are readily available at a low price in any grocery store and their use has become part of our daily routine. Every time you handle a spice, it is usually the result of a particular episode in human history.
Although it is thought to originate in the Moluccas, the clove tree was never found in the wild. A tree that thrives in a hot and humid climate, it is grown by seeds and then transplanted when it reaches one metre in height. It starts to flower around age six when it reaches about seven metres tall, or about half its maximum height. A clove tree in full production yields about two kilograms of dried cloves per year. Clove is actually an unopened flower bud. A yellowish colour, it turns progressively dark orange or purple at harvest time and can reach one centimetre in length. Buds are picked by hand and dried in the sun for three days.
Used in countless dishes and food preparation, clove also has other, lesser known applications. In Indonesia, it flavours a brand of cigarettes. In perfumery, it helps define the particular fragrance of the famous scents Coco by Chanel or Ysatis by Givenchy. It is also found in many pharmaceutical products. It actually contains eugenol, an odorous compound with antiseptic and analgesic properties. In a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, a clove is placed between the gums to relieve toothache. Today, eugenol and its variants are used in fillings and dressings in oral hygiene and dentistry.
It turns out that clove has an unexpected culinary use: it helped make artificial vanilla. Synthetic vanillin is used on an industrial scale today. It is synthesized from eugenol (found in clove oil). The chemical composition of artificial vanillin is very similar to natural vanillin which gives the vanilla pod its raison d'être.
Juniper is probably the least known of the holiday spices. It not used that often and is found especially in the famous choucroute garnie of the Alsatian region of France (a sauerkraut and meat dish made with juniper berries). It is used in the preparation of sauces, marinades or even in game, pork, poultry or rabbit dishes. These dark blue berries also flavour famous English gin, jenever from the Netherlands, genever from Belgium, Scandinavian aquavit, as well as some beer and several eaux-de-vie (fruit brandy). Essential oils from the juniper tree are used in the manufacture of perfumes.
Juniper berries are fruit from the juniper tree. There are 60 species of tree and shrub in this family, used on a massive scale in ornamental horticulture.
The Common Juniper has the largest range of any woody plant in the world. It is found almost everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, from North America to Europe, Northern Asia and Japan. It rarely exceeds more than two metres in height but the shrub can become a real tree over eight metres tall in Europe and New England. Cultivars used for decorative purposes also reach a significant size.
The female flowers are actually cones, like the cones from pine or fir trees. They become pseudo-berries, or galbulus in scientific terms, which turn dark blue when they mature in their second year. Picked in the wild during the fall, the fruit gets its spicy flavour during drying.
Native to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas in Indonesia, nutmeg is now cultivated all over the tropical world, including India, Sri Lanka, and Grenada in the Caribbean, which is the main supply for Canadian wholesalers. But, curiously, it is mostly consumed in Europe and North America.
Nutmeg is an ingredient in many baked goods and is added to a number of meat, fish or vegetable dishes. It is also used to flavour some liqueurs, like Chartreuse or some vermouth.
The nutmeg tree is a fragrant tree that can reach a height of 15 metres. It produces two spices. The net-like, reddish covering of this fruit tree’s seed, called aril, is dried and ground into a spice called mace. Located underneath the aril, the nutmeg spice is the actual seed of the tree. It is always used in ground or grated form. Legend says a wish will come true if you just bury a nutmeg seed under a tree.
Cinnamon is the bark of the trunk or branches of the cinnamon tree, a tree that reaches 15 metres in height. There are more than 250 species of cinnamon tree but only three or four of them are cultivated solely for condiments. Cinnamon is the most famous produced by the Ceylon cinnamon tree (now Sri Lanka) and is widely used in Europe. Its leaves are shiny and release a clove smell when crushed.
Cinnamon available on the Canadian market normally comes from the Indonesian cinnamon tree, also known by its scientific name, Cinnamomum burmannii. It is mostly grown on the big island of Sumatra. Its taste is similar to, yet stronger than Ceylon cinnamon. It is usually impossible for consumers to determine a product’s origins because labels do not provide this information.
Mainly used in powder form, cinnamon is simply the inner bark of the cinnamon tree’s trunk or branches. The tree is often cultivated by growing several bush-like clones, which facilitates harvesting of the bark.
The shoots are cut back when the cinnamon tree reaches a height of about two metres (when it is three or four years old). The harvest takes place during the rainy season when the tree tissue is soaked with sap and the bark is most flexible and easiest to remove. The bark is cut and delicately peeled away from the wood. It is dried for 24 hours and then thoroughly cleaned and cut into strips. The drying process continues and the pieces of bark gradually curl. They will then have a pale brown colour and a characteristic odour.
Cinnamon is widely used in cooking, especially in pastries and desserts. In Canada, it is often associated with applesauce. Spice wholesalers say that consumption always increases in the fall when orchards are ready to be harvested. Cinnamon sticks flavour coffee, chocolate milk and, of course, the mulled wine we drink during the holidays.