Nowadays, when spices cost so little we can enjoy some black pepper, or the delicious aroma of cinnamon, ginger or clove. It seems incredible that these fragrant seeds and leaves were very expensive years ago, very difficult to get and transport. Men were willing to put in danger their life traveling to the most remote places of the planet, if needed, for a little nutmeg or Cassia.
Spices and herbs have played a dramatic part in the development of Western civilization. The Spices today are abundant and are mainly used as condiments. In ancient and medieval times, they were used for medicines, perfumes, incense and as condiments.
The traffic of spices begins before history is recorded. Archaeologists estimate that by the 50,000 B.C., the primitive man had discovered that parts of certain aromatic plants made the food tasted better. To reconstruct what could have happened, we can imagine that a man was about to cook a piece of meat in a hole in the ground. He saw some leaves and it occurred to him that if he wrapped the meat with the leaves, these would prevent the meat from filling with dirt and ashes. Covered the meat with the leaves and left buried in the hot hole. Then, to his surprise, he found that the leaves gave a new flavor to the food. In that moment, humanity discovered the art of seasoning.
THE SPICES IN ANTIQUITY
Our word "aroma" was the ancient Greek word for "spice". The oldest use of spices that is known (sesame seeds), comes from an Assyrian myth. This myth says that the gods drank sesame wine the night before they created the earth.
Readings about ceremonies and primitive religious rites show how spices were used in the cult. In the legends of the ancient world there are many facts related to his magical powers. The Medical knowledge is based on the healing properties of aromatic plants, which to recent times, were authentic folk medicines. Sometimes more valuable than gold itself, spices were such an expensive item, that their places of origin were the best-kept trade secrets of all time. Another of the oldest stories about spices comes from China, where ginger, cassia, turmeric and anise grow abundantly. Emperor Shen-Nung, who lived in 2800 B.C. and founded Chinese medicine, wrote a treatise on herbal medicine and celebrated regularly spice markets. India was the homeland of pepper, the most sought spice, as well as hot pepper, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, coriander, cumin and sesame. Sri Lanka produced cinnamon and the East Indies had clove, nutmeg and mace.
An extensive route of the spice trade "The Golden Road of Samarkand", extended through the desserts of South Asia and the Middle East. For centuries, the Arabs controlled this route and made fortunes as intermediaries, trading locally produced products, African products and spices from Far East. Donkey caravans and then camels followed this route carrying products to faraway lands where there was a great demand.
Spices were also used as a sign of worship, as when the wise men offered incense and myrrh, along with gold, to the Infant Jesus.
200 B.C. to 1200 A.D.
Spices in the Middle Ages
As their Empire became more dominant, the Romans began sailing from Egypt to India to trade with spice. It was a difficult two-year trip across the Indian Ocean to get pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger. By the first century, a Greek merchant sailor, Hippalus, realized that the changing monsoon winds blew southeast from April to October and from northeast from October to April. Instead of fighting the winds, merchants began to take advantage of them and so they made their trips less than a year.
16th to 18th century
English exploration begins
In the 1500s, the English sought their own route to the east in the north. They did not find any, but in 1600, Isabel I registered the British Company of East India and began to take control in India. In 1780, the Dutch and the English fought for the spice trade and destroyed the Dutch Company of East India. In 1799 the Dutch lost all the spice trade centers and the company closed.
17th to 20th century
Americans enter the spice trade
The Americans were introduced to the world spice race in 1672. Elihu Yale, a former employee from the British Company of East India in Madras, India, born in Boston, started his own business of spice trade. The fortune he made would be used one day to open Yale University. In 1797, Captain Jonathan Carnes, sailed to Salem, Massachusetts from Indonesia with a large cargo of Pepper. He had negotiated directly with Asian natives of the place to trade the spices through the European monopoly. Massachusetts became the center of the North American spice trade. The first trip produced a 700% profit and trade continued to grow. About a thousand American ships made that trip around the world for the next 90 years.
As their influence grew, the Americans made many new contributions to the world of spices. Texan settlers developed chili powder in 1835 as a simpler way of preparing Mexican dishes. In 1889, food researchers in Watsonville, California, developed techniques to dehydrate garlic and onions. In 1906, Eugene Durkee wrote the first standards for the purity of spices under the U.S. Food and Drug Purity Act. World War II attracted interest in international food to the U.S. because the soldiers brought to their homes a variety of foods they found in Europe and Asia. The use of oregano, the “herb for pizza” grew 5200% in the decade after the war.
At present, Asia produces most of the spices that once ruled the trade, including cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, clove and ginger. However, more and more spices are being planted in the Western hemisphere along with a wide variety of herbs and aromatic seeds. Brazil is the biggest pepper supplier. Granada produces nutmeg. Jamaica produces ginger and allspice.
Nicaragua, El Salvador and the U.S. produce sesame seeds. Europe and California produce several herbs and
Canada produces a wide variety of aromatic seeds. Since the beginning of history, the strongest nations have controlled the spice trade. The same happens currently; U.S. is now the largest buyer of spices in the world, followed by Germany, Japan and France. Today there are about 2,500 spices known as edible herbs, of which a large majority, are not taken advantage.