Article 13 – History Of Spices
Abundant anecdotal information documents the historical use of herbs and spices for their health benefits (1). Early documentation suggests that hunters and gatherers wrapped meat in the leaves of bushes, accidentally discovering that this process enhanced the taste of the meat, as did certain nuts, seeds, berries, and bark. Over the years, spices and herbs were used for medicinal purposes. Spices and herbs were also used as a way to mask unpleasant tastes and odors of food, and later, to keep food fresh (2). Ancient civilizations did not distinguish between those spices and herbs used for flavoring from those used for medicinal purposes. When leaves, seeds, roots, or gums had a pleasant taste or agreeable odor, it became in demand and gradually became a norm for that culture as a condiment. Spices were also valuable as items of exchange and trade. For example, the Bible mentions that in 1000 BC, Queen Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem and offered him “120 measures of gold, many spices, and precious stones.
SPICES AND HERBS IN EUROPE DURING THE MIDDLE AGES (ABOUT 600 TO 1200)
In the Early part of the Middle Ages (before the Crusades), Asian Spices in Europe were costly and mainly used by the wealthy. A pound of saffron cost the same as a horse; a pound of ginger, as much as a sheep; 2 pounds of mace as much as a cow. A German price table of 1393 lists a pound of nutmeg as worth 7 fat oxen. Pepper, as well as other spices and herbs, was commonly used as a monetary source. Eastern Europeans paid 10 pounds of pepper in order to gain access to trading with London merchants. Throughout Europe, peppercorns were accepted as a substitute for money (some landlords would get paid as a “peppercorn rent” (2). Peppercorns, counted out one by one, were accepted as currency to pay taxes, tolls, and rents (partly because of a coin shortage). Many European towns kept their accounts in pepper. Wealthy brides received pepper as a dowry.
AGE OF SPICE DISCOVERY (1300 TO 1500)
Marco Polo mentioned spices frequently in his travel memoirs (about 1298). He described the flavour of the sesame oil of Afghanistan and the plants of ginger and cassia of Kain-du (the city of Peking), where people drank a flavourful wine of rice and spices. He reported that the wealthy in Karazan ate meat pickled in salt and flavoured with spices, while the poor had to be content with hash steeped in garlic. He mentioned in Hangchow, 10,000 pounds of pepper were brought into that heavily populated city every day. Polo also described vast plantings of pepper, nutmegs, cloves, and other, valuable spices he had seen growing in Java and in the islands of the China Sea, and the abundance of cinnamon, pepper, and ginger on the Malabar Coast of India. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that Polo’s accounts led to an increased international spice trade during the 13th and early 14th centuries. King Manual had a large influence on bringing spices to Portugal. Several sea voyages helped establish a trade route to India. In 1501, the port of Lisbon, Portugal had large quantities of Indian spices such as cinnamon, cassia, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, mace, and cloves. King Manuel sent trade missions to develop new markets for his spices throughout Europe, especially in Germany. As the spice wealth poured into Lisbon, the Portuguese crown monopolized the lucrative but risky pepper trade. Cargoes of East Indian vessels were sold at high prices by the king of Portugal to large European syndicates. As in medieval times, the price of pepper served as a barometer for European business in general.
AMERICAN HISTORY (1600 TO 1861)
Western medicine is rooted in plant based medicine. The United States used plants as the primary source of medicine from the time of the Mayflower (1620) until after World War I (1930) (Malady, 2001). Modern medicines, such as aspirin from the willow bark are rooted in plant based medicine.When tea drinking became unpatriotic in Colonial America, spices and herbs were used to replace traditional tea. Sassafras bark, chamomile flowers, spearmint leaves, lemon balm leaves, raspberry leaves, loosestrife, goldenrod, dittany, blackberry leaves sage and many others were often used as a beverage(4).Toward the end of the 18th century, the United States entered the world spice trade. The British taxes and trade restrictions of colonial days no longer obstructed American commerce. They traded American salmon, codfish, tobacco, snuff, flour, soap, candles, butter, cheese and beef, for spices (pepper, cassia, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger).Between 1797 and 1846 Salem, Massachusetts enjoyed a flourishing Sumatra pepper trade and profited immensely from taxation and sales. Most of the enormous quantities of pepper were re-exported to European ports (Stockholm, Gothenburg, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Antwerp) or were transshipped to Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore for processing and distribution by other American merchants and exporters. The largest single cargo on record for one of the Salem pepper fleet was of just over 1 million pounds (500 tons) of pepper, brought from Sumatra to Salem in 1806 by the Eliza, a sailing ship of 512 tons. After 1846, an overproduction of spices brought a gradual decline in its economic importance until the final demise of the Salem pepper trade following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
MODERN SPICE USAGE
Unlike earlier times when monopolies dominated the spice trade, commerce in spices is now relatively decentralized. Throughout the world, spices and herbs are frequently used in cuisine, largely to improve flavour and to provide new tastes. Today, people are increasingly interested in enjoying spices and herbs for health benefits. As research is progressing, more evidence is supporting some of the anecdotal information supplied by our ancestors.
Rohit .B. Alande , 8th ‘c’
Love Dale Central School
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