The History of Spices

The history of spice is almost as old as human civilisation. It is a history of lands discovered, empires built and brought down, wars won and lost, treaties signed and flouted, flavours sought and offered, and the rise and fall of different religious practices and beliefs. Spices were among the most valuable items of trade in ancient and medieval times. As long ago as 3500 BC the ancient Egyptians were using various spices for flavouring food, in cosmetics, and for embalming their dead. The use of spices spread through the Middle East to the eastern Mediterranean and Europe. Spices from China, Indonesia, India, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka ) were originally transported overland by donkey or camel caravans. For almost 5000 years, Arab middlemen controlled the spice trade, until European explorers discovered a sea route to India and other spice producing countries in the East.

Spices and the Age of Exploration
The search for a cheaper way to obtain spices from the East led to the great Age of Exploration and the discovery of the New World. European explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Bartholomeu Dias began their long sea voyages to discover a sea route to the sources of spices. Christopher Columbus went westwards from Europe in 1492 to find a sea route to the lands of spices but found the Americas. In 1497 the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route around the southern tip of Africa, eventually reaching Kozhikode on the southwest coast of India in 1498. Da Gama returned from his voyage with a cargo of nutmegs, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorns.

Spices in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, spices were as valuable in Europe as gold and gems and the single most important force driving the world's economy. The lack of refrigeration and poor standards of hygiene meant that food often spoiled quickly and spices were in great demand to mask the flavour of food that was far from fresh. Fierce competition among European nations for control of the spice trade was the driving force behind the colonisation of India and other Asian lands. At various times, the Portuguese, Dutch, French, Spanish, and English established monopolies over various parts of the spice trade. This period saw empires founded and fortunes made and was also characterised by brutal conquests, piracy, and greed. This era saw the formation of trading empires such as the British East India Company.

What Are Spices?
Spices are the aromatic parts of tropical plants traditionally used to flavour food, or the dried seeds or fruit of temperate plants used in the same way. Some of the substances we call spices come from the bark or roots of certain plants, but the majority are berries, seeds, or dried fruits.
Some of the most popular spices in South Africa – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, pepper – are native to the Asian tropics. Some of the aromatic seed spices – coriander, fennel, fenugreek, mustard, poppy – are native to the Mediterranean region. A few spices – allspice, chillies, vanilla – are native to parts of the Carribean and Central America.

How To Use Spices
Complex flavours can be created by using mixtures of spices that complement each other. Some spices are used for their taste while others are used for their aroma. The stage at which spices are added to a dish can make a big difference. Typically they will impart flavour if added at the beginning of the cooking process, but if they are added at the end it is their aromas that will be most noticeable. The aroma and flavour of spices come from essential oils. The oils in most spices contain a dozen or more constituent chemical compounds. Many of these chemicals are present in more than one spice (which is why cinnamon and cloves have a similar flavour), although typically these chemicals are in different proportions.
To release the essential oils in spices, the cell walls must be ruptured. This can be done by:

  • grinding

  • pounding

  • grating

  • cooking

The essential oils in spices are volatile and they begin to evaporate once exposed through processing. This is why spices are best (in terms of their aroma and flavour) when they are freshly processed. In their whole form though, some spices can keep for years.

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