The Lore, Love And Lure Of Spices

Holiday baking is underway all over the country and beyond. The air in most homes is redolent with cinnamon, ginger, cloves, anise, nutmeg, cardamom, pepper, saffron, vanilla and other aromatic ingredients. We couldn’t imagine all the goodies of the season without these spices. Yet, does one ever pause to marvel at the ease with which we obtain them? Carrying list in hand, we get to the supermarket, locate the baking aisle and select the spices from the shelves. Familiar slim bottles holding powders in various shades of brown. We never think about spices unless a recipe calls for them.

Like so much else, we have become accustomed to taking the availability of spices for granted. As common as salt right? We no longer marvel at the way spices shaped world history. Yet, from the beginning of civilization, spices have been heavily sought. Be it for their fragrance and flavor or their power to preserve both food and body, spices have been in use forever. Egyptian tombs dating from 3000 BC have been found to contain spices. Wars have been fought , countries taken over, trade deals made, Gods appeased and eternal life assured because of these innocuous looking materials.

Each type of spice was once worth its weight in gold. Or emeralds and diamonds. It is true. Spices commanded an unsurpassed value. And here we are, sauntering into the grocery store to casually pick up a jar of cinnamon or mace. Nothing to it.

Growing up in India, we were taught in school about the lure of spices and tea that led to widespread colonization of South-East Asia. Columbus was looking for a faster route to get to India and her riches when he came upon America. Yet, we were not taught to fully appreciate the plants that yielded the sought after spices. It is possible that everybody assumed the knowledge because Indian cuisine is perhaps the one that uses the most variety and quantity of herbs and spices. Kind of like not being surprised that others coveted what we’d already used and enjoyed for centuries. In retrospect, I wish we had studied the spice plants as part of botany class, learned their cultivation and trade in commerce, mathematics and geography, their impact on humanity in history, and their properties and applications in biology and chemistry. That is a complete education in itself. It would not only have been interesting and relevant but, might have served brilliantly to show how every subject in school is connected.

Why spices were so expensive is not simply a matter of where the plants grow. Growing, harvesting and processing them is no simple achievement. A great deal of effort is required to yield a small amount of the spice. Often, the work can be risky or dangerous.

While we each make and/or partake of foods with spice this holiday season, I thought I’d pick one spice and tell you very quickly how it gets to us. Use this reading moment as a time to breathe deep and appreciate what we rarely give our attention. In a season fraught with traditions and history, lets take a walk to a faraway place, witness age-old practices and, properly meet the hitherto insufficiently appreciated clove.

Lets make the journey to Zanzibar. Mysterious, exotic Zanzibar. Heavily scented Zanzibar of the Spice Islands off the coast of east Africa. Evoking tales of the Arabian Nights and ancient legends told by Persian traders using Zanzibar as a base for voyages between the Middle East, India, and Africa. Zanzibar was once the world’s largest producer of cloves.

Cloves are the dried aromatic flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtacea Syzygium aromaticum. The trees were introduced from Indonesia in the turn of the 19th century. They are harvested September through November which coincides with the short rainy season. Harvesting is hard work as it must be done by hand. The bunches of cloves are found deep in the foliage and are difficult to reach. On lower branches, they can be grabbed and pulled off but higher branches demand that the picker climb the tree which can grow to 50 feet. In the rain, imagine how perilous this can be. Every member of a family must help in the harvest.

The picked bunches are carried in gunny sacks from farm to village where leaves and buds are separated and dried in the sun. Again, by hand. The leaves are dried and pressed for perfume and oil. Clove oil is still used to treat toothaches.

The buds themselves are taken to one of three collection stations and sifted by hand to clean the harvest. Dirt, twigs and other particles are removed. This procedure is painstaking and necessary for yielding a product of high quality.

The sifted and cleaned cloves are weighed and only then the farmer is paid. Heaviness, dryness and aroma are inspected and packaged accordingly. Strong aromas and whole, intact cloves fetch higher prices.

From here, they are transported and go on to be sold locally or exported for use in cooking, medicine or cosmetics.

That is a long, strenuous journey don’t you think? Can you imagine eating foods without any of the spices?! No cinnamon babka, no gingerbread cookies, no chutneys, no steak au poivre, no mulled cider, no anything delicious!

Coming back to our holiday baking, it gives a renewed appreciation for the spices doesn’t it? I for one am resolved to send a silent thanks each time I reach for a spice. Once again, plants have shaped our civilization. They remind us to be grateful and mindful. Spices improve not only our foods but, our hearts and minds as well.

Happy indulging one and all! May the holidays be seasoned perfectly with joy and laughter.

Some years ago, I visited coffee,tea and spice plantations in southern India. While I cannot locate photos of that visit, I unearthed a few watercolors I made. So, thats what I’m including here. I’m sure if you are interested to see more, you will discover a plethora of images on the Internet!

Coffee and tea

Coffee and tea

Pepper and cardamom

Pepper and cardamom

(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

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1 thought on “The Lore, Love And Lure Of Spices

  1. Wonderful! I’ve never thought about the huge role of the spice trade throughout history v. our casual assumption of their availability today. Will keep this in mind while making cinnamon rolls on Christmas!

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