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Spicy Tales

Exotic flavorings have seasoned food since the dawn of history

By Christina Waters

WE ARE TOLD that somewhere around the Renaissance, the search for a convenient route to the Spice Islands helped spawn global navigation, the discovery of the New World, and the rise of international economics. But nobody tells us why all those European men convinced kings and queens to buy them costly ships and then sailed to the ends of the earth to procure a steady supply of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. My kingdom for a pumpkin pie? Well, something like that.

Simply put, Europe--in its formative stages--was mad for spices. Addicted, some say. From kings to serfs, everybody laced their meals with ridiculous amounts of it--especially pepper, cinnamon, and cloves, which were ingeniously incorporated into just about every dish most people ate. It went further. After dinner parties, well-heeled hosts intent on impressing their guests passed around little bowls of cinnamon and cloves, sort of like recreational cocaine. Some guests to French banquets in the 1600s--the zenith of spicemania--even brought their own nutmeg and nutmeg graters to banquets, just to make sure they got a large enough dose of this pungent flavor-enhancer.

Frankly, spice as used by our forebears in the Middle Ages had less to do with flavor enhancement than it did with gastronomic overload. And if that sensory bombardment came from a luxury item imported from a great distance--especially a place whose actual location remained a mystery--so much the better.

Engendering bloodshed, corporate greed, and colonial lust on a global scale, the quest for spice fueled Western history and culture for two millennia. As early as the Roman era, spices had attained such cachet and value that taxes were paid in kilos of cinnamon; before that, Pharaohs regularly paved their way to eternity with bonfires of the stuff.

In the medieval era, those who could afford it were passionate about pepper, whose exotic luster stemmed from its mythical proximity to Paradise itself. The full-bodied appetite for highly seasoned foods--pepper in every pot--linked Europe with a fabled East whose emissaries were the growing cadre of traders who set up fragile routes from Venice, through Syria and Egypt, to the source in India and the Molucca Islands (off the Malay coast).

Naturally, journeys that cross this many tens of thousands of miles were fraught with peril. Hence the celebrated romance and danger surrounding 15th- and 16th-century entrepreneurs all intent upon finding more direct routes to the East. That Christopher Columbus might have discovered an entire New World was purely accidental. What he was after was pepper.

AMERICA'S FAMILIAR holiday meals provide one-stop tasting of the history of recent European expansionism. The pepper in the mashed potatoes, the cloves stuck into the baked ham, the ginger in the candied yams, and the cinnamon and nutmeg in the pumpkin pie--ordinary but pungent flavors we've come to take for granted--are legacies of ancestral cravings and the ingenious ways in which they were satisfied. And while today (with the delicious exception of Indian and Asian cuisines) most of our use of spices is confined to sweets--pastries, pies, candies--Europeans from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance laced their every chicken, pork, and beef recipe with huge helpings of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper, and ginger.

Cinnamon, the matriarch of spices, mentioned in the Bible and ancient Egyptian records, was the catalyst for a famous journey undertaken by the globe-trotting Polo family in the year 1271. After locating the source in Ceylon, the Venetians kept the secret well enough to have a monopoly on the cinnamon trade until the 16th century, when venture capitalists from England, Holland, and Portugal started getting into the act.

Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a climbing vine long prized in its ancestral home, the tropics of India. Required eating by the time of Chaucer, it was a favored culinary condiment of the ancient Greeks, followed by the Romans, who bequeathed its joys to their European provinces.

So expensive that it was given as bonuses by emperors to their victorious generals and devoted bureaucrats, pepper enjoyed a mystique that far outran its power to spice up the menu. It seems that pepper's aggressive flavor became psychologically linked to the idea of potency. Combined with sheer expense, pepper's symbolic machismo soon ran neck and neck with its gastronomic properties. And while the perceived potency remained--even today it's considered manly to be able to tolerate lots of pepper on your steak--the astronomical price of this crucial spice began to drop once the Portuguese opened up sailing routes to India in the late 15th century.

That strangely shaped tropical rhizome forming the business end of the ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) was already a critical ingredient of Indian curries by the time Europeans had learned how to dress themselves. Enterprising Persian traders were regularly importing it from India by the fifth century B.C.E.

Ginger's rampant popularity in medieval cookery and pharmacopoeia stemmed from its manifold properties as a digestive, an aggressive flavor-enhancer, and an alleged aphrodisiac. Healthy doses of the stuff were long believed, by Europeans and Chinese alike, to extend procreative powers in aging lovers. It was popular combined with cinnamon in French cookery and considered a delicacy in its crystallized state--mixed with sugar--by Far Eastern hedonists who developed a brisk side business in porcelain ginger jars as a promotional spin-off.

By the time of the Renaissance, French and Italian cuisine had adopted a mellower approach to strong spices, but the use of ginger as a culinary ingredient remained in the recipes of England, Germany, and Scandinavia. Some of the old wisdom lingers in today's commercially produced ginger ale, still touted for both its zippy flavor and its stomach-settling properties.

CLOVE, the dried, oil-intensive bud of the Eugenia caryophyllata tree, was especially beloved of Arabic gourmands, who blended it ubiquitously into grain dishes. The Chinese, who liked to sweeten their breath with the potent spice, already developed a brisk clove trade with East India by the second century B.C.E. European use of the intense flavoring evolved from Roman enthusiasm--during the early centuries of the Christian era, emperors regularly expressed official appreciation in kilos of cloves.

From the 17th to the late 18th centuries, the English, French, and Dutch--frustrated over high costs and a negative balance of trade--each set up their own East India Company and usurped one another in procuring a price-fixing monopoly on the clove trade. Eventually each nation transplanted clove seedlings into its own tropical colonies. Once everybody had a piece of the action, the trading corporations dissolved.

Pretty much the same saga surrounded the romance with nutmeg and cardamom, the smuggling of which during the European Renaissance was as dangerous and lucrative as modern-day drug trafficking. One of the building blocks of Indian curries, cardamom was first used in perfumes by the Greeks and Romans, and later was chewed after meals to help eradicate telltale garlic odor. Eventually, it was used in European cuisine, was especially popular with the English of Shakespeare's time, and today is still used to flavor spirits and cookies in Scandinavia and coffee in Arab countries.

Was all this international profiteering, intrigue, and expense worth it? Think about it the next time you inhale the fragrance of mulled wine or fresh-baked cookies or a dish of curry. However much or little the costly ingredients that made and laid waste empires are used today, their unparalleled fragrances and tastes are still the spice of life.


Two fascinating sources were useful in creating this article: Wolfgang Schivelbusch's Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants and Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's encyclopedic History of Food.

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From the June 20-26, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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