THE HERB SOCIETY OF NASHVILLE
The Herb Society of America, Inc.
The Herb Society does not give advice on the medicinal uses of herbs.
Following are two special articles: History of HSN Gardens and Life of Spice
History of HSN Gardens
The two herb
gardens maintained by the Herb Society of Nashville change with the seasons as
with time. Original plans are modified and sometimes extensively altered
predicated upon the adaptability of chosen herbs.
Study Garden at Cheekwood is devoted to the study and evaluation of herbal
plants to determine those that can be successfully grown year round in Middle
Tennessee. As a study garden our society is devoted to promoting the knowledge,
use, and delight of herbs through educational programs, research and sharing the
experience of its members with the community.
A small study group was formed by women interested in herbs
The Life of Spice
The Life of Spice
The information for this article comes from the following two books:
Spices of the World Cookbook. McCormick. Published by Penguin Books copyright 1964.
The Book of Spices. Frederic Rosengarten, Jr. Published by Pyramid Books, NY. November 1973. Copyright 1969.
It occurred to your gardener that we as members of The Herb Society, spend a lot of our time and effort talking and studying about herbs, while the subject of spices receives very little attention. The uses of spices are so akin to that of herbs that a closer look at spices may be worthwhile. This article and those that follow in the next months will serve in part to remedy this situation.
The subject of this series will be SPICES. Spices are not herbs, but are so inter-related with herbs in their properties and uses, that they deserve a place in the thinking of anyone interested in herbs. Keep in mind this loose definition: an herb is mostly an annual plant that grows in a temperate zone, and its foliage, flowers, or seeds are used for flavoring, fragrance, medicine, dyeing or other commercial uses. A spice on the other hand is only found in tropical areas and has many of the same uses. It is found in the form of a berry, stem, bark, root, or seed of either shrubs or trees.
No one knows exactly when man learned to build fires to cook his food�. or when he began to add other materials to improve taste.
Who was the first to cook a piece of meat? Was it accidental? While sitting by a warming fire, was a piece of raw meat accidentally dropped in the fire and then eventually eaten rather than being thrown away?
While attempting to keep meat clean during cooking in the ashes of the fire, early man may have learned to wrap it in aromatic leaves and, lo and behold, discover a different taste. One can dream on and on about those early times.
What made people taste and eat and then eventually cook various leaves and seeds? When game was scarce, probably hunger played the most important part in this development.
When was it discovered that water in a container over a fire would assist in the cooking of meat and plants together? How did people discover which plants to use? Surely someone picked the wrong plants, got sick and died. Even with our knowledge today, would you have the nerve to go into an unexplored wilderness and taste some strange vegetation?
Written mention of spices was made by the Assyrians 5,000 years ago. These people lived in the Fertile Crescent� an area of rich soil beginning at the coast of Israel, going north to the mountains of Syria, and curving around and down to the top of the Persian Gulf.
Archeologists believe that primitive man�s practice of seasoning food goes back 50,000 years. He learned that strong tasting and/or spoiled meat could be improved by using certain plant material. Gradually man discovered that some of these plant materials had medicinal properties. These findings were recorded by Greeks and Romans. Through these records, we have learned how advanced these great civilizations were.
In another spicy tidbit, we know that when Alaric, the Visigoth, captured Rome in 440 AD, he demanded 3,000 peppercorns as part of his price for sparing Rome�s inhabitants.
When the great civilizations declined, the spice trade did also, and did not resume for several hundred years. It was then that the Islamic empire began to monopolize the spice trade. It is recorded that prophet Mohammed (seventh century AD) married a widow whose wealth came from the spice trade. These spices were those that were brought to Venice and Seville.
The increasing demand for exotic spices resulted in the development of a thriving spice trade between the East and the main cities of the Mediterranean. The spices were brought from Ceylon, Sumatra, Java, Bali, and the Moluccas to various ports in India. There they were loaded on camel caravans for the long journey to Syria. These caravan drivers would never disclose the source of these spices to the Westerners. This situation resulted in the determination of Spain, Portugal, and Italy to begin exploration to the west for sea routes to find this unknown source. This was the impetus for the great explorations of Columbus, Vasco de Gama and Magellan.
The Life of Spice
We left our tale of the spice trade in the medieval days at the beginning of the period of world exploration. To briefly review what happened in the past: From the Near-East, routes had been established overland across India and then on to the Spice Islands. In addition, there were maritime routes to Africa and India. The port of Alexandria in Egypt became the most important trading center between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.
Since before the birth of Christ, the desire for spices increased in the Greek and Roman worlds. Frequent invasions from the north, however, caused economic problems for Rome and Greece, which gradually led Constantinople to become more powerful. This metropolis developed trade routes northward along Russian rivers, opening up trade as far north as the Baltic. From these ports, spices were traded to England in exchange for wool.
A curtain was thrown over Europe during the Dark Ages (641-1096 A.D) and trade in silk, gems, ebony, sandalwood, spices, and the ever popular and expensive pepper was curtailed. The Muslims had cut off trade with the western world. During this period, Jewish traders were responsible for the little commerce that existed because they were accepted by both Islam and the Christian world. From Europe, they carried woolen cloth and furs, Frankish swords, eunuchs, and white slaves eastward in exchange for the valuable spices.
When northern Europeans and Englishmen returned from the crusades (1098 � 1204), they had acquired many new ideas and tastes from their Eastern adventures. Crusaders witnessed the luxurious mode of living in the Near East and coveted this style of life. The result was a change in their eating and cooking habits. New exotic fruits and spices were even becoming available to the middle class. Pepper was by far the most popular and nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom were also in great demand. During this period, Antwerp and Bruges became the leading trade centers of northwestern Europe. The development of trade in Venice, Genoa, and Pisa eventually led to the birth of the Renaissance.
In 1180, a Pepperers� guild was established in London that then very soon became transformed into a Spicers� guild and was given the right to trade in spices, drugs, and dye-stuffs. The members of these guilds were the forerunners of apothecaries, who in turn eventually became general medical practitioners. Until this period, the cultivation of herbs in Europe was carried on largely by Benedictine monasteries. The monks offered the only medical remedies and care available at that time. During this period, spices were one of the most important ingredients of medical practice.
It was about 1271 that Marco Polo set out overland from Venice and traveled though Crimea to the inland continent of Asia in search of the source of gems and spices in the Far East. He eventually ended up in Mongolia� at the fabled court of Kublai Khan. It was some 40 adventurous years later that he returned from China with his unbelievable tales of the fabulous wealth of China. It had taken 6 centuries to reach this period of exploration.
The Life of Spice
In the late 13th century, Genoa and Venice were rivals in commerce and were vying for trade supremacy in the world. During this period, Marco Polo was captured and imprisoned in Genoa for a year. While incarcerated, he dictated the adventurous tales of his travels in the Far East. He frequently mentioned the spices he encountered and the ways they were used in food preparation. He described the vast plantings of pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and other spices that he had seen growing in the islands of the China Sea, and the abundance of spices he had found on the coast of India (Malabar). He also described large cities and marble palaces. He mentioned business activities that were new to him � the mining of coal, block printing, paper money, and 4-masted sailing ships that were capable of carrying 6,000 baskets of pepper. Each of these concepts offered opportunities for potential wealth for eager and enterprising Mediterranean tradesmen.
By the 15th century, Portuguese ships daringly crossed the previously uncrossed equator and traveled down the west coast of Africa, discovering the Cape of Good Hope. It was thus confirmed that the Indian Ocean could be reached by sea. Spain was also attempting exploration in this regard so the two rivals signed a treaty wherein they acknowledged that all land discovered west of the Cape Verde Islands was to belong to Spain and that found east of the islands was to belong to Portugal..
Columbus sailed under the sponsorship of the King and Queen of Spain who had given him a letter if introduction to the Great Khan of China (the supposed title of the king of China). On his first voyage, Columbus found inhabited land in what is now the Caribbean but because of a lack of geographic knowledge he thought he had reached Inia. He first set foot on San Salvador and then Cuba and Santo Domingo. The principal search for cinnamon and black pepper failed. Instead, he found natives harvesting bright red nut-like objects that were probably Capsicums (native chili peppers). To his dismay, none of the Eastern spices were discovered. What he did bring back to Spain were yams, kidney beans, maize, cassava roots, tobacco, a native cotton, and many new varieties of nuts and fruits.
Columbus also found the natives using hammocks. This idea was quickly adopted by the European seamen who had always slept on the deck.
A second voyage by Columbus to the Caribbean did reveal a flavorsome berry of a fruit tree that had the combined taste of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. It was a native of the West Indies and South America. This �Allspice� tree, pimenta dioica, gradually gained popularity in Europe. Another spice that slowly became popular was vanilla, the seed pod of an orchid that grew in Mexico.
Efforts to find a route to China met with disappointment after disappointment. England eventually joined in this undertaking by sending John Cabot on two voyages. He failed to find spices but instead discovered Newfoundland, and the coastal regions of Greenland and Labrador.
Spain sent Herman Cortes westward in 1519, an exploration that ended in his conquest of Mexico. In the meantime, Portugal concentrated on establishing contact with the East. With the use of great brutality and slavery, they established plantations there for growing various spices.
Spices in the New World
The Spanish conquistador, Hern�n Cort�s, began his conquest of Mexico in the western world in 1519 by subjugating the Aztec empire. A few years later, another Spaniard named Pizarro entered Peru. By the end of the century, the northern coast of South America, which was known as the Spanish Main, was frequented by merchants, slavers, and pirates. Sadly to say, these Europeans showed utter disregard for the rights of the people with whom they came in contact and often treated them with heartless cruelty. Cort�s and Pizarro also joined in by shamelessly looting the Mexican and Peruvian cities.
Cort�s, having heard of the wealth to be found in inland Mexico, made the 200 mile trip through the jungle to capture Mexico City and seize Emperor Montezuma. Cort�s stole silver, jewels, gold, and the unusual ornaments which the Aztecs had crafted and accumulated for centuries. Their problem now became safe delivery of the precious cargo to Europe since piracy on the high seas posed a serious threat.
Cort�s� great contribution to the history of spices was his discovery of vanilla growing in the moist shady costal rain forests of southeastern Mexico. The Aztecs used this delicate flavoring to season their chocolate beverages.
Following Montezuma�s capture, one of Cort�s� officers saw him drinking �chocolatl� (made of powdered cocoa beans and ground corn flavored with ground vanilla pods and honey). The Spanish tried this drink themselves and were so impressed by this new taste sensation that they took samples back to Spain. By the end of the century, the beverage had become so popular that factories were established to produce it. Actually it was vanilla rather than the chocolate that made a bigger hit and by 1700 the use of vanilla was spread over all of Europe. Mexico became the leading producer of vanilla for three centuries.
In 1529, rumors reached the Spaniards that even greater riches were to be found among the Incas in Peru. Pizarro invaded the country to plunder the area. Treasure found there was carried up and across the Andes to the Isthmus of Panama for shipment to Spain twice a year.
What developed then will remain a mystery until you read about vanilla in a future article. Attempts were made to grow this exotic flower elsewhere but failed miserably. (Why it did was a mystery until 1836.) Attempts were made to grow this exotic flower elsewhere but they failed miserably.
The Spice Saga Goes On
This is the fifth and most current part of a multi-part discussion of The Spice of Life.
By the end of the 17th century, Dutch colonizers in the Far East had overcome their enemies, the Portuguese, and had almost driven the British out of the East Indies. In that area, the Dutch now enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the growing of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, Indian pepper, ginger, and turmeric. They had in fact such an over-production that they found it necessary to burn some of their spices.
But all good things come to an end. During this period, enterprising Frenchmen smuggled some plants out of the Dutch controlled islands and started plantings in some of the French colonies.
The British had become eager to re-establish colonies in the East Indies. In 1780, they responded to the near-monopoly of the Dutch by blockading Dutch controlled ports and preventing export of the spices to Holland where they would then be offered to the world market.
Blockading the Dutch colonized ports on the Indian Malabar coast resulted in their control passing to the English....and an end to the Dutch monopoly. However, in 1824 after decades of constant confrontations, the Dutch and English signed a treaty designating certain islands to the Dutch while others remained British.
Having become a world power towards the end of the 18th century, the United States entered the world spice trade. Free of British taxes and trade restrictions, they utilized the sea-worthy New England privateers that had been built and used during the revolution. A brisk trade developed between the Orient and harbor towns in Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Fish, tobacco, snuff, flour, soap, candles, butter, cheese, beef, and barrel staves were traded for tea, coffee, textiles, indigo, and spices such as pepper, cassia, cinnamon, and ginger.
Between 1800 and 1811, Massachusetts carried on a thriving trade in pepper with Sumatra. Their first voyage gave them a 700 % profit which inspired other merchants to join the trade. Two clipper ships had completed 10 trips by 1805, bringing back 1200 tons of pepper. These cargoes were then trans-shipped to Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore for European ports in Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Belgium. Over-production eventually led to the demise of the pepper trade, which came to an end during the Civil War. History records that America�s first millionaires were birthed through trading with the Orient.
The important spice-producing regions of Sumatra and Java carried on their trade with the West until the Japanese invasions of the Second World War. Today, India and Indonesia are the world�s leading pepper producers, exporting more than 30,000 tons annually.
Contact the Herb Society of Nashville with questions or comments here.
Or telephone (615) 429-6175 or (615) 356-1886
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