To say a spice was special was tautological; indeed the words have a common root. And as a sense of their exceptionalism was embedded in their name so it was integral to their appeal. By any measure the most exceptional of the spices, and far and away the most historically significant, is pepper.
Its tendrils bear clusters of peppercorns on dense, slender spikes, turning a yellowish-red at maturity, like redcurrants.
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On this one plant grow the three true peppers: black, white and green. Black pepper, the most popular variety, is picked while still unripe, briefly immersed in boiling water, then left to dry in the sun. Within a few days the skin shrivels and blackens, giving the spice its distinctive wrinkly appearance. White pepper is the same fruit left longer on the vine. After harvest the outer husk is softened by soaking, left to dry and rubbed off in water or by mechanical action. Green or pickled peppercorns are picked while still unripe, like black pepper, then immediately soaked in brine.
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Pepper has several lookalikes, the cause of much confusion, which all belong to different species. Melegueta pepper was widely used in medieval times, but is now confined to speciality shops, a fate shared by long pepper. The latter is doubly confusing for sharing an Indian origin with black pepper, whereas Melegueta pepper is native to Africa.
The attractive pink peppercorns commonly sold in combination with the other peppers are entirely unrelated — the plant, native to South America, is in fact mildly toxic, recommended more by its appearance than its taste.
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The clove, on the other hand, is unmistakable. A walk through the perfumed groves of Zanzibar or the Indonesian islands is an unforgettable experience; in the age of sail mariners claimed they could smell the islands while still far out to sea. The clove itself grows in clusters coloured green through yellow, pink and finally a deep, russet red.
Timing, as with pepper, is everything, since the buds must be harvested before they overripen. For a few busy days of harvest the more nimble members of the community head to the treetops, beating the cloves from the branches with sticks. As the cloves shower down they are gathered in nets and spread out to dry, hardening and blackening in the tropical sun and taking on the characteristic nail-like appearance that gives the spice its name, from the Latin clavus, nail.
The association is common to all major languages. For reasons of both history and geography, the clove is often paired with nutmeg and mace. The latter two are produced by one and the same tree, Myristica fragrans.
The tree yields a crop of bulbous, yellowy-orange fruit like an apricot, harvested with the aid of long poles, with which the fruit is dislodged and caught in a basket. As the fruit dries it splits open, revealing a small, spicy nugget within: a glossy brown nutmeg clasped in a vermilion web of mace. Dried in the sun, the mace peels away from the nutmeg, fading from scarlet to a ruddy brown. Meanwhile the aromatic inner nutmeg hardens and fades from glossy chocolate into ashen brown, like a hard, wooden marble.
The problems were particularly acute with cinnamon — a fact, we shall see, with some considerable ramifications, and over which scholars continue to wage arcane debates to this day. The spice is formed from the inner bark, which is stripped from the tree with knives, cut into segments and left in the sun to dry, curling into delicate, papery quills.
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This and several other members of the family were long considered the poor relations — cassia has a coarser, ruddy bark, with a more pungent aroma. It is disconcerting, though hardly surprising, to find the medieval consumer more attuned to the difference. For even the most indifferent there can be no mistaking the last major spice, ginger.
Zingiber officinale has been cultivated for so long that it is no longer found in a wild state. Of all the spices it is by far the least fussy, and far the easiest to transplant. The plant will no longer go to seed of its own accord but must be propagated manually, with root-stalk cuttings.
During long oceanic voyages Chinese navigators grew the spice in boxes to ward off scurvy. Provided the ambient soil and air are sufficiently hot and wet, the slender, reedy stems soon sprout, flowering in dense spikes coloured pale green, before maturing through purple and yellow. The spice is the root, or tuberous rhizome. But, amenable as it is to transplantation, before the technology of refrigeration, air travel and greenhouse, no European had eaten fresh ginger, at least not in Europe.
The spice arrived after a long journey by ship and caravan, occasionally candied in syrup but more commonly and conveniently in dried form, either powdered or whole, in the distinctive, gnarly lumps still occasionally to be seen in a Chinese grocery. These, the archetypal, tropical Asian spices, are the main subjects of this book — the dramatis personae. There were others that rose into and fell from favour, however these were foremost, whether on grounds of cost, origin, reputation or the sheer longevity and intensity of demand.
They were in a class of their own. But while spices are the immediate subject, in a broader sense the book is necessarily about Europe and Asia, the appetites that attracted and the links that bound. For the most part, however, the scene and action of the following chapters are written from a European perspective, partly on account of my own linguistic limitations, but also in deference to what might be termed the law of increasing exoticism.
A fur coat is standard in Moscow, a luxury in Miami. When the world was an immeasurably larger place so it was with spices, and particularly these spices. The further they travelled from their origins the more interesting they became, the greater the passions they aroused, the higher their value, the more outlandish the properties credited to them. What was special in Asia was astonishing in Europe. In the European imagination there never was, and perhaps never will be again, anything quite like them.
Calamus is an aromatic, semi-aquatic perennial herb, widely distributed from the Black Sea to Japan, put to similar purposes.lastsurestart.co.uk/libraries/cam/1168-messenger-location-for.php
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Frankincense and myrrh are powerfully aromatic gum resins native to southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa. Frankincense was primarily used in ancient incense. Myrrh was put to purposes as diverse as incense, seasoning and embalming. Protracted overdoses of nutmeg can cause cancer of the liver. When I discovered the Indies, I said that they were the richest dominion that there is in the world.
I was speaking of the gold, pearls, precious stones, and spices, with the trade and markets in them, and because everything did not appear immediately, I was held up to abuse. And it is largely on tradition we must rely, for aside from a few sparse details the witnesses to the scene had frustratingly little to say, leaving the field free for painters, poets and Hollywood producers to evoke the moment that marks the watershed, symbolically at least, between medievalism and modernity. They have tended to imagine a setting of suitable grandeur, with king and queen presiding over an assembly of everyone who was anyone in the kingdom: counts and dukes weighed down by jewels, ermines and velvets; mitred bishops; courtiers stiff in their robes of state; serried ranks of pages sweating in livery.
Ambassadors and dignitaries from foreign powers look on in astonishment and mixed emotions — awe, confusion and envy. The universe has just been reconfigured. Or so we now know. But the details are largely the work of historical imagination, the perspective one of the advantages of having half a millennium to digest the news. The view from was less panoramic; indeed, altogether more foggy.
It is late April, the exact day unknown.
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Columbus is indeed back from America, but he is oblivious to the fact. His version of events is that he has just been to the Indies, and though the tale he has to tell might have been lifted straight from a medieval romance, he has the proof to silence any who would doubt him: gold, green and yellow parrots, Indians and cinnamon. At least that is what Columbus believed. His gold was indeed gold, if in no great quantity, and his parrots were indeed parrots, albeit not of any Asian variety.
Likewise his Indians — the six bewildered individuals who shuffled forward to be inspected by the assembled company were not Indians but Caribs, a race soon to be exterminated by the Spanish colonisers and, deadlier still, by the germs they carried. The misnomer Columbus conferred has long outlived the misconception.
A witness reported that the twigs did indeed look a little like cinnamon, but tasted more pungent than pepper, and smelled like cloves — or was it ginger? Equally perplexing, and most uncharacteristically for a spice, his sample had gone off during the voyage back — the unhappy consequence, as Columbus explained, of his poor harvesting technique.
Like the Indies he imagined he had visited, his cinnamon was the fruit of faulty assumptions and an overcharged imagination. For all his pains Columbus had ended up half a planet from the real thing. In April , his wayward botany amounted to a failure either too bizarre or, for those whose money was at stake, too deflating to contemplate. As every schoolchild knows or should know , when Columbus bumped into America he was looking not for a new world, but an old one. What exactly he was looking for is clearly delineated in the agreement he concluded before the voyage with the Spanish monarchs, promising the successful discoverer one tenth of all gold, silver, pearls, gems and spices.
His posthumous fame notwithstanding, in this respect Columbus was only a qualified success. For in what in due course turned out to be the new world of the Americas, the conquistadors found none of the spices they sought, although in the temples and citadels of the Aztecs and Incas they stumbled across riches that out-glittered even the gilded fantasies they brought with them from Castile.
Ever since, it is with the glitter of gold and silver, not the aroma of spices, that the conquistadors have been associated. But when Columbus raised anchor, and when he delivered his report in Barcelona, seated in the place of honour alongside the Catholic monarchs, ennobled and enriched for his pains, the perspective was different. The unimagined and unimaginable consequences of his voyage have clouded later views of causes, privileging half of the equation.
Columbus sought not only an El Dorado but also, in some respects more beguiling still, El Picante too. Why this was so may be answered with varying degrees of complexity. The simplest answer, but also the shallowest, is that spices were immensely valuable, and they were valuable because they were immensely elusive and difficult to obtain. From their harvest in distant tropical lands, spices arrived in the markets of Venice, Bruges and London by an obscure tangle of routes winding halfway across the planet, serviced by distant peoples and places that seemed more myth than reality.
That this was so was as much a function of the geography as the geopolitics of the day.