A Short History of Spices

For thousands of years man has relied on the aromatic plants that could be found in their own backyards to create medicine and to flavor their foods. Fortunately, in most areas of the world there was an abundance of native plants. In ancient Europe there could be found dill, marjoram, parsley, thyme and a vast array of other herbs. However, when it came to spices there was another story farther to the East. Spices. Just the word would call up visions of exotic locations and peoples with mysterious ways: India, Ceylon and the Spice Islands, including Sumatra (with its peppercorns) and the spices of Java, Bali, the Moluccas and more. At the height of the civilizations of Greece and Asia Minor a flourishing spice trade between east and west was already well established. Spices were brought from their native lands to India, which became the center of the spice trade. As the Greeks, and later the Romans conquered and colonized the known world, they took their knowledge of spices with them. According to ancient records, the first mustard seed arrived in England in 50 B.C., brought by the Roman soldiers. Very quickly the value of these spices spread to the fierce tribes of Gaul and Celtic outlanders. By the year 410 A.D., the “barbarian” conqueror, Alaric the Visigoth, demanded 3,000 pounds of peppercorns as part of his prize for sparing the citizens of Rome. The value of spices in the Middle Ages can only be imagined today. From the time of Marco Polo’s trek to India and beyond, more and more travelers ventured eastward, expanding the increasingly dangerous spice trade. A handful of cardamom was worth as much as a poor man’s yearly wages, and many a slave was bought and sold for a handful of peppercorns. Many a trader was murdered for the spices he carried. Spices not only enhanced the flavor of food, but in the age before ice-boxes and refrigerators, spices were also used to preserve meat. During the Renaissance in Europe, spice cookery reached extremes of complexity. Hot spices, such as pepper, ginger, and cloves were mixed with native herbs like fennel and coriander. Sweet seasonings, such as anise, nutmeg and mint were often added for good measure. Today modern methods of growing, curing, grinding, mixing and packaging have made a wide variety of spices available to all of us. The popularity of the Food Channel has given all of us a crash course on the value of a well spiced dish. Spices such as cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon are welcome additions to pies, cakes, and exotic dishes. From ancient times, when a bagful of peppercorns was worth a king’s ransom, to today, spices are still a necessary addition to a civilized way of life. By Jaye Lewis

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