Spices have been the inspiration for trade and have even started wars. The ground pepper you shake on your salad was once worth its weight in gold… the nutmeg you grate onto holiday eggnog once fueled a war that gained Long Island for England.
Archeologists discovered spices in Egyptian tombs as early as 3000 BC. The strong preservative quality of many spices made them ideal for embalming. Many of the spices had strong connections or affiliations with different Gods. Their fragrance was also thought to gain the favor of the Gods, offering one a better chance of celestial help in travels into the afterlife. Throughout many periods of history, spices have claimed attention for their mystical properties.
Spices are evidenced from the beginning of hieroglyphic practice. A wall in the palace of Knossos, in Crete, shows a monkey-man picking saffron, one of the most precious of all spices. The carving dates back to 1700 BC. As civilization progressed, so did the complexity of record keeping. A fascinating document called the Ebers Papyrus, dating 1550 BC, details information about the practice of surgery and medicine at the time. Present is a listing of a vast array of cures formed from herbs and spices, many of these exactly the same herbs and spices we commonly find in our own spice racks for our everyday cooking. So it is most likely that the most important aspect of spices in history was their ability to heal and perpetuate life.
An obvious factor of the importance of spices is their role in the unfolding of the discovery of land all over the planet Earth. Man was no longer happy with the spices growing in their own back yards. The peril of adventurous travel was great but the rewards came in rare and beautiful forms – gold, silver, ivory, ebony, spices, rare animals and new plant forms.
Man seems to have always sought after the unobtainable, and those lucky enough to have these precious commodities were wealthy men, men of nobility, royalty, high ranking church officials and a few very shrewd and clever merchants and businessmen. Again, it is important to remember, even though spices were exotic and flavorful and sure to open new culinary worlds, the primary reason spices were sought after was their use as medicine. Even as recently as the 1500s, when the “Spice Wars” were shaking out between the Portugese and the Dutch and later the Dutch and the English, one of the most sought after spices on the wish list was nutmeg. And it was not because the Queen desired a new dessert, rather, nutmeg was highly touted as a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603.
Not only were many men’s fortunes made in the pursuit of spices, at many periods throughout history, spices served as currency. Pharisees in Judea paid tithes in cumin seeds and when Alaric the Visigoth held Rome under siege in the fifth century, the ransom included 3000 pounds of peppercorns. In Germany during the fourteenth century, one pound of nutmeg could be traded for seven FAT oxen. At other points in history, rent would be paid in peppercorns, and a pound of pepper would serve to buy the freedom of a serf in France.
Columbus didn't make it to India or find the spices he was looking for, but he did stumble upon some significant additions to the world's cuisine. His exploration of the Caribbean islands, and others following his footsteps like Hernán Cortés in Mexico, uncovered bold new flavors that have become favorites all over the globe. Red pepper (which we know today as a wide variety of chiles), vanilla, and allspice are a result of their travels.
In the late 18th and 19th centuries, Americans became directly involved in the spice business as the clipper ships of New England came to dominate world trade. So many pepper voyages were undertaken from New England to Sumatra that the price of pepper dropped to less than three cents a pound in 1843, a disastrous slump that affected American business.
The New England spice trade fell off sharply when piracy in the Java and China Seas made long voyages for pepper too dangerous. Meanwhile, the American spice business was moving west. In 1835, American settlers in Texas developed chili powder by combining various ground red peppers from Mexico. Later, herbs were grown commercially in California, mustard seed was grown in North Dakota, Montana, and the Canadian prairie provinces.
Thanks to international travel, we can now stroll through market stalls around the world where spices are sold and we are again compelled to discover the allure of the unknown.