Spices from around the world
From religious accessory to refined delicacy
The first documented evidence for the deliberate use of various spices by man go back a few thousand years. But in predynastic Egypt in 4000 BC spices were not used to improve the flavour of foods; rather they served a religious purpose, suffusing the air with mysterious perfumes when burnt. Others used spices to prepare pleasant-smelling pastes for dermatological use – the first skin creams or perfumes were invented. A little later, around 2000 BC, the Chinese investigated the use of all kinds of spices for medicinal purposes.
The history of spices really came to life with the Arabs who traded them eagerly, making fortunes along the way. It is often said that certain spices were worth their weight in gold and this is no exaggeration. At this time, we are talking around 1100 A.D., the Crusades were the next big event everyone had been waiting for. All of those knights and their entourages travelling between Europe and the Middle East led to spices reaching Europe in large quantities for the first time. Along these somewhat bloody axes, trading towns such as Venice and Genoa developed and flourished, owing much of their power to the spice trade; despite the improved supply situation for pepper, nutmeg and the like, trade mark-ups of 100% or more were common – those Italians!
From war to peace
So the honour of burying the traditional trading system once and for all fell to a Portuguese man. With the secret but specific assignment of discovering a sea route to India, Bartolomeu Diaz set off to sea – and went round the Cape of Good Hope at least once. With this act, completed by Vasco De Gama a few years later, the Portuguese spilled the Venetians from the spice trade throne.Naturally, the more economical sea routes brought prices down, with Portuguese pepper just a fifth of the price of the Venetian.
As a consequence, the colonial powers seized the spice trade for themselves. Endless small wars between the English, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Spanish, primarily around the Moluccas, parts of India and Madagascar became almost daily fodder for the press of the time. In the Dutch era there was a merchant by the name of Jacob van Neck who gave the Banda Islands their name. From these islands he took nutmeg and sold it with a markup of 32,000% in Europe. A less popular fact in Dutch history: the inhabitants of the Banda Islands were almost exterminated during this period.
The French were particularly sneaky, managing to pinch nutmeg saplings from the Dutch occupied and closely guarded Moluccas, quickly planting them in one of their own colonies. The person responsible for this was a gentleman by the name of Pierre Poivre, whose name in English ironically means Peter Pepper. So that was the end of the Dutch nutmeg monopoly. The rest of the spice trading history to date is only moderately exciting and less bloodthirsty.
However, things only begin to get really interesting when it comes to the use of these aromatic plants. There have been many theories as to why spices increased in popularity and application so much in the Middle Ages. Food preservation, hiding the flavour of spoiled food, maintaining their seasoning ability despite long transport times. The truth, however, is far more likely that spices were used in large quantities purely to show off. After all, only the well-off could afford spices and for them it was anything but difficult also to obtain fresh meat. That puts paid to the preservation theory. So the precious spices played the role occupied today by expensive cars. They were a status symbol. One thing we do know: apart from a few decadent aristocrats, overly spiced dishes were not necessarily to everyone's taste. Too much is just too much.
The chefs back then of course could only dream of the quantity and quality of spices to which we have access today. These days, spices of the highest quality and purity are combined with selected foods to create new delicacies, revealing completely new taste sensations to the refined palate. Rare red peppercorns with high-quality dry cured ham, exquisite fresh vanilla with handmade pasta or fine chilli with premium chocolate – anything goes and the only limit is personal taste.