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Spice and Herbs
in history

Spice History

Spice use by man may date back 50,000 years... Read the history of spice and how it shapes our lives even today.

Early history

Spices in the Spice Market in Cairo,
used in Arabic cuisine.

The first evidences of spice use by man are believed by some to date back to 50,000 B.C. but, wide spread spice trade revolved around cinnamon and pepper throughout the Middle East as early as 2000 B.C. The Egyptians fueled the need for exotic spices for embalming use and helped to stimulate world trade. The Chinese and Indians in 1000 B.C. had a system of medicine based on herbs also.

Throughout history, we find the earliest uses of herbs include magic, medicine, religion, tradition, and preserving. An archaeological dig on Indonesia’s island of Ternate suggests that cloves were introduced early on in the Middle Eastern culture. In a Mesopotamian dig site a clove was found burned to the floor of a burned down kitchen that was dated around 1700 B.C.

Incense carivan

The Bible, in the book of Genesis, tells the story of Joseph being sold by his brothers to spice merchants, and again, in the Song of Solomon, the speaker compares his love to spices. In general, most cultures of that time do not specifically name any known spices. Nutmeg originates from the Banda Islands in South Asia and has a Sanskrit name, the language of sacred Hindu texts.

Historically, nutmeg was introduced in Europe round the 6th century B.C. It is also known that Rome had cloves, around the 1st century AD, because of the writings of Pliny the Elder. Merchants from Indonesia went to China, India, the Middle East, and the east coast of Africa. The Arab spice merchants traveled routes through the Middle East and India. The city of Alexandria in Egypt became the main center for spices because of its port. This port combined with the monsoon winds of 40 AD slowly replaced the land locked routes traveled by middle Eastern Arab caravans.

Middle Ages

"The Mullus" Harvesting pepper.
Illustration from a French edition of
The Travels of Marco Polo.

The most luxurious products in Europe in the Middle Ages, were spices. The most common of these were black pepper, cinnamon cumin, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. An illustration from a French edition of The Travels of Marco Polo depicts pepper being harvested. All these spices were imported from the plantations of Asia and Africa making them extremely expensive.

The Republic of Venice monopolized the spice trade with the Middle East and close by Italian cities between the 8th and the 15th centuries. The region became very wealthy because of this. It is estimated that 1000 tons of pepper and 1000 tons of all other spices were imported into Europe late in the Middle Ages and the value of this amount of spices was equivalent to a year’s supply of grain for 1.5 million people. Pepper was of course the most common while saffron was the most exclusive. Saffron was used for its vivid yellowish-red color as well as for its flavoring.

A misconception of modern day is that cooks of these medieval times used large amounts of spices, particularly black pepper, to disguise the taste of spoiled meats. A feast of this time was however, quite the event and Noble hosts had vast selections of fresh or cured meats, fish, and fowl. They wanted to show their many resources and generosity. To use expensive spices to cover up cheap or rotting meats would have been a waste.

Early modern period

Venice controlled the trade routes as well as the pricing for spices. The spice-producing regions also helped to keep spices in close control.

In 1499 Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gamma sailed to India because Spain and Portugal were not happy with the cost of spices. Around the same time Christopher Columbus returned to the New World and described to investors the many varieties of spices available there, most still unknown at that time.

Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515) was able to allow the Portuguese to take control of the sea routes to India. He took the island of Socotra at the mouth of the Red Sea, in 1506. He captured Ormuz in the Persian Gulf in 1507. He then became the viceroy of the Indies and went on to take Goa in India in 1510 and Malacca, on the Malay peninsula, in 1511. Portugal could now trade with Siam and China directly. Now complemented by the Portuguese sea routes, the Silk Road brought the treasures of the Orient to Europe including many spices. After the New World was discovered, there came with it many new spices, allspice, bell and chili peppers, vanilla and the greatest of all flavorings chocolate.

The New World settlers brought herbs and plants to North America, which thrived. Before 1750 the majority of people thought plants and trees would not grow outside their native habitat. This belief kept the spice trade profitable well into the 19th century. America was a late comer with its new seasonings to the spice trade. The island of Grenada, in the Caribbean, well known for growing and exporting a number of spices, including nutmeg, was introduced to Grenada by the settlers.