Yore Lore: Romancing the spices

As we become increasingly health-conscious and as healthy life choices like exercising regularly, cutting down on sugar and salt are advocated, we turn to alternate taste sensations which will appease our taste buds. Exotic spices like cumin, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom are the answer. These spices in pinch-size quantities give food both flavor and medicinal qualities.

Spices have stirred people’s imagination and aroused their palates since the beginning of history. The search for spices has made many adventurers pursue dangerous paths in caravan land trails and untraveled ocean routes, has caused wars and has generally motivated them to seek new lands whose existence no one imagined.

The spices first were introduced to the West by China and what is now India in about 323 BC with the conquests of Alexander the Great, while Rome entered the spice trade in the latter half of the first century BC. At this time, Rome enjoyed the lucrative trade dealing mainly with spices, silks, aromatic woods and fragrant oils.

These exotic goods were in short supply and had to be carried in camel-driven caravans over long difficult land trails that originated in Southern India, ran northwest through Afghanistan, Persia, Syria and into Arabia, and crossed the Red Sea into Egypt. From here they were shipped to the Mediterranean ports. These caravans were often attacked by bandits and their safe passage was often dictated by the elements of nature — so they became very expensive.

The high prices attracted adulteration by the greedy traders. Adulteration of spices is the addition of ingredients to pure spices to make them appear more valuable than they actually are. In time, the practice of adulteration became so widespread that laws were enacted in Rome, Baghdad and Alexandria proclaiming that spice adulteration was punishable by death. The demand for spices made the Arabian spice traders secretive about the source and method of transportation in order to protect the valuable commodity. So for some time there was a virtual monopoly in spice trade.

In 1295 AD Marco Polo, Venetian explorer, travelled to the Far East and the island chains in the Pacific. He gave a traveler’s personal account of his trips to the Orient and more significantly the sources of spices grown in Eastern countries — China, India, Ceylon, Borneo and volcanic islands of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Marco Polo inspired men to find land and sea routes to the exotic lands he described in his book and Venice gained a corner on the spice trade.
The Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama went to India in search of trade routes and the spice-producing regions in 1499 since Spain and Portugal were not happy to pay the high price that Venice demanded for spices. Christopher Columbus returned from the New World at about the same time, and he described to his patron investors the many, then unknown, spices available there.
Sea voyages were dangerous and medical care while on sea was primitive. Unmindful of this, many adventurers braved the dangers and sailed into the unknown sea. Some survived and many perished. The most successful expedition was carried out by Magellan from 1519-23 who finally charted the route to the Spice Islands from Spain, though he himself was killed in an uprising in Philippine waters. The remaining explorers of the Magellan expedition reached New Guinea where cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper and other spices grow in profusion. The number of sailors who returned to Spain dwindled from five ships and 265 sailors to one vessel and 18 sailors. Finally, at substantial cost to themselves, they had discovered the Spice Route.
With the discovery of the new world and the Americas came new spices, including allspice, bell and chili peppers, vanilla and chocolate. Although new settlers brought herbs to North America, before 1750 it was thought that you could not grow plants or trees outside of their native habitat. This belief kept the spice trade profitable well into the 19th century.
We are fortunate to have the modern methods of transportation and communication shrinking the global boundaries and giving us access to the spices of our choice at reasonable prices, considering the mortal peril one had to endure to procure them in the past.