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Spices
Nature Bulletin No. 290-A   January 20, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

SPICES
The contents of those little spice cans on every kitchen shelf have romantic histories. The story of spices is a tale of camel caravans, perilous voyages through unknown seas, the discovery of America, bloody wars, and the rise and fall of far-flung empires. The Chinese traded with Malay for spices, 4000 years ago. In 408 AD, when Rome was besieged by the Visigoth conqueror, Alaric, the Eternal City bought her freedom with gold, silver, silk, leather and 3000 pounds of pepper. In medieval times, the demand for spices to flavor tasteless foods and to disguise the taste and odor of half-rotten meats made them literally worth their weight in gold. The poor had only salt and a few herbs. A pound of pepper cost more than a sheep; a pound of cloves was worth more than a cow.

For untold centuries, spices were obtainable only from the Arabs who jealously guarded their caravan routes from the fabulous Far East. In the 11th Century, Venice dominated the Mediterranean and her merchants became wealthy by ferrying Crusaders to the Holy Land and returning with cargoes of spices. The quest for a sea passage to India and the Spice Islands, by Portugal and Spain, eventually led to discovery of a route around Africa, the discovery of America by Columbus, and Magellan's voyage rounding Cape Horn.

It is a remarkable fact that most of the true spices grow on tropical islands or near the sea. Pepper, the most important, is an ivy-like climbing vine native to Ceylon and the Malabar coast of India. Slender spikes of minute flowers are followed by green berries which later turn red like strands of coral beads. When dried, the green berries turn black and are sold as black pepper. The ripe red berries, freed from skins and pulp, make white pepper. It is now grown in many parts of Asia and in the West Indies.

Cinnamon is the thin yellowish-brown inner bark of the twigs of several kinds of small evergreen trees in the laurel family. It is highly fragrant and has a peculiarly sweet warm aromatic flavor. It is native to Ceylon and the Malabar coast but is now grown in Java, Egypt, Brazil and the West Indies. The Jews anointed their holy vessels with cinnamon- scented oils and it is used in incense burned in Catholic churches. The bark, buds and dried unripe fruit of the Cassia, a related tree in China, are used for a less aromatic flavoring.

Nutmeg and Mace are produced by an evergreen tree native to the Moluccas or Spice Islands but now grown extensively in Madagascar, Zanzibar and elsewhere. It may become 40 feet tall and its small yellow bell-shaped flowers are followed by peach-like fruit which split open to expose a kernel covered by a scarlet fibrous coat. Inside is the seed -- the nutmeg. The scarlet coat, dried, is mace.

Cloves come from another evergreen tree native to the Spice Islands. Its rose-pink flower buds, unopened, are picked and dried in the sun. Both Portugal and the Netherlands rose successively to be world powers through their monopolies on clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper -- a monopoly finally broken by the English and the French. Coriander, turmeric and ginger are ancient spices -- the latter two from underground root-stocks. Ginger, originally from southern Asia, has been grown in the volcanic soils of Jamaica since 1600 AD The only true spice native to the New World is the Allspice Tree, so named because its unripe berry, dried, seemed to combine the flavors of pepper, nutmeg and clove.

Solomon's bed was perfumed with cinnamon. Egyptian kings were embalmed with aromatic oils, and Connecticut Yankees sold wooden nutmegs.


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