The Lure and Lore of Spices
The Importance of Spices in World History
When you walk into the section of your local grocery store that houses spices, you see myriad bottles of multicolored powder. Some spices look relatively fresh, while other spices look like they were scooped out of the desert on the planet Mars and bottled. Unfortunately, this is the only view many people have of spices - mostly uninteresting, merely a way to add some flavor to food.
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 colored, 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. That ground pepper you shake on your salad was once worth its weight in gold; the nutmeg you grate onto holiday eggnog once fueled a war that gained Long Island for England.
How are we able to trace the history of spices? Often we seem to be putting pieces of a colorful puzzle together. Some fit in clearly, gracefully, while others we try to force, even while it is clear that we are pushing. Some spice pieces elude us, but we still achieve a fairly solid grasp of spices life story based on both the pieces surrounding them, and by looking at the completed puzzle - the "big picture.”
Before the time of recording, we are still quite certain spices played a prevalent part in man’s daily life - and death. Archeologists 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 curry (no pun intended) the favor of the Gods, offering one a better chance of celestial help in travels into the afterlife. Throughout many periods of history, spices have claimed attention for their mystical properties, either through ingesting or smoking. What mankind has done throughout time to creatively enhance or elevate the perception of his existence is a fascinating subject. Not wanting to send anyone down a potentially dangerous road, we must leave details of these spices to the imagination.
We know that as soon as man understood the importance of preserving and recording the complex existence of his life, and his intelligence developed to a level of rudimentary picture making, he left us a pathway to the past. Spices are evidenced from the beginning of hieroglyphic practice. A wall in the palace of Knossos, in Crete, shows a monkey/man picking saffron, one of the most precious of all spices. The carving dates back to 1700 BC. As civilization progressed, so did the complexity of record keeping. A fascinating document called the Ebers Papyrus, dating 1550 B.C., details information about the practice of surgery and medicine at the time. Present is a listing of a vast array of cures formed from herbs and spices, many of these exactly the same herbs and spices we commonly find in our own spice racks for our everyday cooking. So it is most likely that the most important aspect of spices in history was their ability to heal and perpetuate life.
An obvious factor of the importance of spices is their role in the unfolding of the discovery of land all over the planet Earth. We were no longer happy with the spices growing in our own back yards, and wanted to explore uncharted territories. 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. Again, it is important to remember, even though spices were exotic and flavorful and sure to open new culinary worlds, the primary reason spices were sought after was their use as medicine. Even as recently as the 1500s, when the “Spice Wars” were shaking out between the Portugese and the Dutch and later the Dutch and the English, one of the most sought after spices on the wish list was nutmeg. And it was not because the Queen desired a new dessert, rather, nutmeg was highly touted as a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603.
Not only were many men’s fortunes made in the pursuit of spices, spices at many periods throughout history literally served as currency. Pharisees in Judea paid tithes in cumin seeds. When Alaric the Visigoth held Rome under siege in the fifth century, the ransom included 3000 pounds of peppercorns. During the fourteenth century, in Germany, one pound of nutmeg could be traded for seven FAT oxen. At other points in history, rent would be paid in peppercorns, and a pound of pepper would serve to buy the freedom of a serf in France.
In researching the history of spices, we find a recurring theme in that virtually every spice was considered a strong aphrodisiac. The famous English herbalist Culpepper prescribed ginger for his patients “weak in the sports of Venus.” After vanilla was discovered by Cortez in Mexico and brought back to Europe, a German doctor conducted an extensive several year study to conclude very scientifically that vanilla cured impotence in men (an early viagra). Spices throughout time also seem to have been touted for their help in dieting. (Apparently mankind has been dieting since the beginning of time) One must remember that clever marketing has also been evident since the beginning of time!
This brings us to another revelation, which is that throughout time there have been honest, scrupulous businessmen, and others on the wrong side of our code of ethics. We are in possession of some antique spice merchant recipe books which give standard ingredients to use to dilute valuable spices. For example one might cut pepper with dirt and stones, while ginger powder could be cut with pinewood sawdust. However, there is a period of time in which spice merchants who were caught selling false saffron were actually burned at the stake - with their imposter saffron.
One other, less lofty, need spices have filled is based on their strong scent. While we take for granted the good hygiene habits of most of our fellow Americans, throughout periods of civilization, people did not necessarily have free access to water. In other words, a gathering of your fellow men would not be the most pleasant experience for the olfactory sense. Spices served as a way to perfume a room and the people in it. When knights would return from battle to have an audience with their king, they would sit on ground strewn with fresh rosemary of thyme. If you were indeed a wealthy king, you would have beautiful maidens sprinkling you with the most expensive of spices, saffron, on the stairway of the palace event.
So the next time you go to shake a little black pepper on your steak, perhaps you will pause and reflect a moment on how you came to be eating what you are. It may come from a plastic bottle on the supermarket shelf, but it took a long, convoluted route to get there.