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All The Spices Of The Indies


“And there come to these marts great ships, on account of the bulk and quantity of pepper and aromatic spices that are available there...” - Anonymous Greek, Periplus Maris Erythraei, 1st century AD.

Pepper is just one, if perhaps the best known, of the many spices used throughout the world to preserve or flavour much of the food we eat. Spices – for such is the generic term applied to these culinary wonders – are the highly esteemed fragrant or pungent plant products of tropical and sub-tropical regions. Employed in small quantities to impart flavour, aroma and piquancy to food, they are of little nutritional value, but they stimulate the appetite, enhance flavour and add zest to cuisines worldwide, giving delight to gourmets and making otherwise bland foodstuffs irresistible.

While the word spice is loosely used to refer to a wide variety of seasonings, true spices are the dried seeds, bark, flower parts, roots, buds or fruits of plants. Common examples – besides pepper – include cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, mace, sesame and of course allspice. Today, thanks to improved communications and comparative human affluence, most people can walk into the local supermarket or corner store and purchase a selection of spices for a modest outlay of cash. Such was not always the case, however. In mediaeval Europe spices were used not just to enhance the flavour of food, but to mask unpleasant tastes and odours. Because there were so few ways to keep food fresh, the value of spices – then a rare commodity procured with great difficulty from the uttermost ends of the earth – rose to a point that can scarcely be imagined today. A handful of cinnamon was worth more than a peasant's annual wages, and slaves were bought and sold for a pinch of peppercorns!

For many centuries Arab traders enjoyed a monopoly as middlemen in the spice trade, buying pepper, cloves and other rare commodities from the distant markets of Southeast Asia and India, transporting them across the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean by dhow, or across Central Asia by camel caravan, and selling them to the Romans, Greeks, Venetians and other Mediterranean people for distribution – at vastly increased price – throughout Europe.

Not surprisingly, the Arabs were anxious to maintain their monopoly over this valuable commodity, and invented fantastic tales of the dangers and difficulties involved in obtaining spices. Not that acquiring spices was easy – the Arabs were masters of navigation, skilled traders and sophisticated businessmen whom it would be hard to circumvent. By around 1400, however, the value of spices had reached such extraordinary heights that the search for a sea route to the Indies became a priority in Europe, with Portuguese and Spanish, British, Dutch and French all vigorously competing to find the way. Indeed, unlikely as it may seem today, the demand for spices contributed in no small way to the discovery of the New World by Columbus in 1492 and six years later, in 1498, to Vasco Da Gama's arrival at Cochin, on India's fabled Malabar Coast.

Columbus may have failed to find the markets of the Indies, but his voyage to the Americas led to the discovery of important new spices, notably chilli peppers, vanilla and allspice, which would become extremely popular throughout Europe and Asia. Meanwhile the Europeans, having struggled for centuries to break the Arab monopoly on the spice trade of the east, lost no time in imposing new monopolies of their own. Most notable in this respect were the Dutch, who seized control of the "Spice Islands" of the Moluccas in eastern Indonesia, and made a fortune from the sale of cloves. Subsequently the British succeeded in acquiring young clove trees and started rival plantations on Zanzibar and Pemba Islands off the East African coast. This endeavour was so successful that even today cloves remain the mainstay of Zanzibar's economy.

The popularity of spices during the entire period of European expansion, from the 15th to the 18th centuries, is difficult to exaggerate. Spice cookery reached extremes of complexity, especially in puddings and meat dishes, though the combinations of spices used might seem strange to modern palates. Hot spices from the Orient, such as pepper, ginger, and cloves, were frequently mixed with native European flavours such as fennel and coriander. Sweet seasonings, such as anise, nutmeg, and mint, were often added for good measure. These were the staple seasonings of the Renaissance diet. These same seasonings have survived in many different combinations and are widely used in European and American cookery today.

As for Asia – the source of so many spices, and home to a wealth of sophisticated national cuisines which rely on rich and pungent flavourings – who could imagine South or East Asian cuisine without the chilli pepper? Today the chilli, in its many forms, is so central to the culinary traditions of Thailand and India, Indonesia and the Philippines, that it seems almost impossible to envisage as a newcomer to the region. Yet, just five centuries ago, no one in Asia had ever seen a chilli, let alone learned to flavour a dish with one. In retrospect, such changes are all part of the give and take of that remarkable endeavour that is the spice trade, bringing mankind together, and adding a little spice to our lives every time we take a meal!


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media