Monday, April 1, 2013

Spice: A History of Temptation by Jack Turner

Spice: A History of Temptation by Jack Turner is an overview of the role spices have played in history. I have learned from this book that spices were a big driver in the European exploration of the New World and Asia. The book focuses mostly on the spices native to Asia: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mace, ginger, and pepper. These grew only in Asia, and in the case of nutmeg and mace, on only the five tiny, volcanic islands of the Moluccas.

Ancient and medieval Europe grew many herbs and aromatics, including coriander, parsley, cumin, and saffron. In fact, saffron was grown in England in medieval times. However, the exotic Eastern spices were sought after. The Romans traded gold for spices and explorers such as Columbus and Magellan were motivated to find spices on their journeys.

This book was our Kitchen Reader book club choice, chosen by Suzy of sudden lunch! It focuses more on history than on culinary uses for spices. As well as examining the role of spices in exploration, Turner also highlights spices as aphrodisiacs, nutrients, and spiritual agents. Due to the wide-ranging topics, there is no real narrative to the book and I found the chapters hard to follow and difficult to read. On the other hand, I picked up a lot of information that was new to me.
  • The Eastern spices were highly sought-after before the modern era. This was because they were “small, long-lasting, high-value and hard to acquire.”
  • Pepper was a common currency among rich people in Europe in medieval times. “Spices had the supreme merit of being accepted everywhere, a sort of universal currency.” Even now some rents carry a token peppercorn value.
  • Nutmeg and mace are from the same tree. Nutmeg is the stone of the tree’s fruit, mace is the outer covering of the stone. The tree grows only on the tiny archipelago of the South Moluccas, “nine outcrops of rock and jungle comprising a total land area of seventeen square miles” in South East Asia.
  • The nearby Molucca Islands (now part of Indonesia) were for millennia the “source of each and every clove consumed on earth.”
  • Ginger boosts circulation and for this reason it was viewed as an aphrodisiac. Newlyweds in eighteenth century England heading to the wedding bed were served a posset of wine, milk, egg yolk, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. (It sounds delicious regardless of its other properties; I would like to try making it!)
Today, spices are no longer as valuable or exotic as they were. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and the other Eastern spices are now widely available and are not used as currency. Spices are no longer a mystery to us. In Spice, Turner makes the assertion that “food has played a huge role (and a curiously neglected one) in shaping the destinies of humanity”. It reminds me of the history of salt we read as part of the Kitchen Reader a couple of years ago. Spices certainly motivated exploration and trade routes; I have no doubt that many other foods are central to history.


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