The Price of Spice

By Melissa Conroy 

The scent of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger are heralds of the holiday season: What would pumpkin pie be without these lovely spices? Imagine cinnamon rolls or apple pie without cinnamon or egg nog without a dash of nutmeg. Indeed, imagine food without spice at all. How dull our lives would be without cardamom, paprika, bay leaf, allspice, chili powder, turmeric, dill weed and other lovely aromatic sprinklings that lend their zip and savor to our foods.

Since most households have a spice rack somewhere in the kitchen and containers of spices are available at any grocery store for a few dollars, most of us easily overlook the fact that throughout much of human history, wars were waged and desperate ventures risked for the piquant herbs and powders. The history of spices is fascinating and complex and it should make you deeply thankful that you can easily purchase a jar of ground cinnamon at the store or don’t have to take out a second mortgage to add pepper to your meal. 

There are countless spices grown and gathered across the world, and different cultures adapt them for their needs, so let’s focus on a handful of common ones and talk about their diverse histories. 

Pepper: No table in the US is complete without a container of ground pepper. The user of pepper dates back to before 2000 BC in India, but the Romans were particularly fond of it. Pepper became such a highly valued commodity and spice that the Dutch had a word peperduur (pepper expensive) to describe a particularly expensive item. In 1468, Duke Karl of Bourgeoisie displayed 380 pounds of pepper at his wedding feast to showcase his wealth, much as a celebrity today might flaunt a $1 million dollar diamond ring. 

Nutmeg: Nutmeg is the seed of several varieties of myristica genus trees whereas mace is the covering coating the seed. Long valued because of their extreme rarity, nutmeg and mace were highly prized during medieval times. This is little wonder because the trees that produced nutmeg were only found on nine islands in the Banda Sea. During plague times, people used nutmeg in hopes that it would protect them from illness, and Arabic writers long touted the spice as an aphrodisiac that could also ease stomach problems. 

Cinnamon: Cinnamon is perhaps as old as pepper, and both spices are mentioned in the Old and New Testaments. Like all spices, cinnamon was incredibly expensive, so much so that Nero was said to have burned a year’s supply of Rome’s cinnamon at the funeral of his wife Poppae Sabina to honor her. 

Cloves: Although cloves only grew on a few islands, the world discovered the spice and people in Europe were using it before the first century AD. In China, people often chewed cloves before an audience with the emperor to insure that their breath was pleasant. The word “clove” comes from the French “clou” meaning “nail,” since a clove does look like a nail. 

Ginger: Use of this funny-looking root dates back more than 3,000 years ago. Although the spice was well-known in Rome, use of it all but disappeared in Europe until Marco Polo brought it back from the Orient and repopularized it. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have created gingerbread men when she presented visiting dignitaries with gingerbread shaped in their likeness. 

While today we have access to a great variety of inexpensive spices, throughout much of human history, spices were enormously costly, primarily because of the effort involved to get them into the hands of customers. Bill Bryson in his excellent book At Home: A Short History of Private Life notes that “By the time they reached European markets, nutmeg and mace fetched as much as sixty thousand times what they sold for in the far east.” The demand for spices was largely what spurred so many travels to foreign lands as dauntless explorers sought better trade routes and easier ways to get the spices their customers demanded. Bryson notes, “For centuries spices were not just the world’s most valued foodstuffs, they were the most treasured commodities of any type.” 

However, the challenges facing these spice merchants were enormous. Travel over land meant crossing mountains and deserts under the constant threat of robbery. Sea voyages were long and perilous, and many a ship sank below the water with a priceless cargo of spices on board. In 1453, the Turkish Empire cut off the land route from Asia to Europe, forcing explorers to find alternative routes to bring their spice cargo to waiting customers. Thus such adventurers as Perdro Alvares Cabral, Christopher Columbus, Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan tackled the oceans in attempts to find a way to reach the Spice Islands via boat.

 With new trading routes open, European countries quickly began jockeying for power over the spice trade. The Dutch-Portuguese War was one such conflict and part of this war involved the Dutch seizing the island of Ceylon which was the largest cinnamon supplier, only to have it taken from them by the French and then English in 1795. Many battles and conflicts that raged across the world for centuries can be tied directly to spices. Countless men died in battle and thousands of others wearily transported spices from one end of the earth to the other, risking untold hardship and danger. It is small wonder that Bryson concludes “I can tell you at one that nothing you touch today will have more bloodshed, suffering, and woe attached to it than the innocuous twin pillars of your salt and pepper set.” 

Happily today, we have easy access to inexpensive, high-quality spices from around the world. Imagine a 4-ounce jar of pepper costing as much as a car. Think of how much a pan of cinnamon rolls or an apple pie would cost if spices were at medieval prices. 


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