At this time of year, our taste in desserts moves from the bright flavors of summer fruits (think peaches and cherries) to the warming fragrance of apple and pumpkin pies. Thanksgiving would not be the same without the aroma of ginger, cinnamon and cloves. We eggnog lovers top that seasonal treat with grated nutmeg. I even have a grater designed for that very purpose. These spices have exotic origins yet have been a part of Christmas from its beginning.
The spice trade began about 3000 years before the birth of Christ. Realizing they had a monopoly on a very desirable product line, traders from the southwestern tip of the Indian sub-continent set out to get the best prices for their goods. We know that the ancient Greeks and Egyptians were customers as well as the Babylonians. Eventually, the Egyptians figured out that they could sail through the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and from there to the Malabar Coast. The Romans carried on extensive trade with south India.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, Arabs took over the business using overland as well as sea routes. They employed the merchants of Venice as middlemen in trading with Europe. Thus the spice trade went on throughout the Middle Ages, making the Venetians very wealthy. It was the desire to deal directly with the source that led the Spanish and Portuguese to launch the Age of Exploration. Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498, establishing direct trade with Western Europe.
Black peppercorns, native to Malabar, were a particular favorite and so valuable that they were used as currency. The Egyptians used them in the mummification process. As a flavor enhancer, they could disguise meats that were a bit past their sell-by date.
Green cardamom, another Malabar exclusive, is not much used here but is extremely popular in Sweden. Believe it or not, it is one of the costliest spices, ranking behind only saffron and vanilla.
Ginger originated in India. It is used to treat digestive problems in the herbal traditions of both China and India. Modern medical research indicates that it may help prevent nausea and treat mild stomach upsets. This is another flavor that has been popular since ancient times. The Romans made ginger-flavored cakes to celebrate their mid-December holiday, Saturnalia.
Cinnamon, native to Sri Lanka, has been a favorite since the time of Moses and Pharaoh. In medieval Europe, where one-cauldron cooking was the norm, cinnamon was used with ginger to create a flavor “bridge” between meat and fruit. Mincemeat pie is an example of this tradition. I have a recipe booklet which uses mincemeat in main dishes as well as desserts.
Cloves and nutmeg are native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. The nutmeg seed is used to make two spices. The seed’s coating is scraped off to make mace, not commonly used here. Think of it as nutmeg light. The large seed is grated to produce the nutmeg we know and love. The Romans used it as an incense. Cloves were used in the past as a breath freshener and mild oral anesthetic as well as to flavor food.
Despite their exotic origins, the spices we associate with holiday cooking have been popular for millennia in Asia, Europe, and North Africa.
Master Gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home,writing a column about it, or possibly grating it into her eggnog.