Life of Spice

February 28th, 2011

In celebration of my newly acquired spice rack, I present this introductory excerpt from Spices, by Henry Nicholas Ridley, 1912

Sorting Spices

The history of the cultivation and use of spices is perhaps the most romantic story of any vegetable product. From the earliest known eras of civilisation spices were eagerly sought in all parts of the world. The earliest explorers in their search after gold paid almost as much attention to drugs and spices, and it was the pursuit of these as much as anything which led to the first rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, and the colonisation of the East Indies. Later, the greed of the Dutch in maintaining the monopoly of the Eastern spice-trade led to the founding of the Straits Settlement colony, while the pepper gardens of southern India, the vanilla of Mauritius and the Seychelles, the cinnamon and cardamoms of Ceylon all played important parts in the opening up of these countries to Western civilisation and Western trade.

It must be noticed that the greater part of the spices that have been valued by man are derived from the Asiatic tropics, while the other quarters of the globe have produced comparatively few. Thus we have the following distribution.

From Asia are derived pepper, cardamoms, cinnamon (natives of southern India and Ceylon), nutmegs, and mace; cloves, clove-bark, turmeric, ginger, greater galangal, from the Malay Archipelago; cassia-bark and lesser galangal from China. Africa gave us grains of Paradise, Madagascar Ravensara aromatica, while the American tropics gave us only vanilla, capsicums, and pimento.

The colder climates of northern Europe and Asia produced but few—coriander, cumin, caraway seed, and mustard and calamus root.

Of the East Asiatic tropical spices most are not really known in the wild state, and it is in many cases actually doubtful as to where was their place of origin.

The appreciation of spices as flavouring for the simple rice food of the oriental, extending over unknown ages, has perhaps caused the oriental to cultivate forms of the aromatic trees and shrubs they met with in the forests into the forms we now know them in, but it must be admitted that in most cases the well-known nutmegs, cloves, ginger, and others do not bear any close resemblance botanically to anything we have since met with in the forests. The cause of this disappearance of the original plant may be perhaps due to the removal to or enclosure in gardens of the plant when found in a wild state. In the case of trees of which the fruit is valuable, the native, on finding it in the forest, may form a garden round them, or he may transfer all the seedlings he can find to his garden, or by steadily collecting the crop of seed annually, may practically in time exterminate the plant in the forest, while later selections of the most productive and valuable forms may modify the fruit so much that we can hardly now recognise it.

Spices can be arranged according to the parts of the plant which form the commercial product. Thus in cloves it is the flower bud which is used; in nutmegs, vanilla, capsicums, pepper, it is the fruit; ginger and turmeric the underground stems, cinnamon and cassia the bark. This is perhaps the most convenient way of sorting them, and I have adopted it.

Cultivations in general can be classified into groups in the following way :—

1. Plantation cultivations, which are generally effected on a large scale, and belong to the class of permanent crops, lasting for a number of years. Such are nutmegs, cloves, cardamoms, cinnamon, vanilla.

2. Garden crops, which are done on a smaller scale, are less permanent and often cultivated as a subsidiary crop to other permanent crops. Such are ginger, capsicums, pepper.

3. Field crops, which are done on a large scale as a temporary crop, and often grown in rotation with other field crops. Such are coriander and cumin.

A certain number of commercial spices are hardly cultivated at all, but are derived from wild trees or plants, the demand for them not being greater at present than the forest can supply. Such are Malay cassia-bark and calamus root. Any of them may at any time, however, come into a greater demand, and it would then be necessary to develop the cultivation. It is therefore desirable to pay some attention to them, as it is not always easy to predict their future. Thus calamus root is grown all over the East, as well as in many other parts of the world, in small quantities, as a native medicine, and imported occasionally into European markets. Recently, however, a planter in the Malay states distilled the oil of it, and sent some of it with other oils to Europe for examination. It proved to be in great request by certain brewing firms as a beer flavouring, and was highly valued. The demand for this product was quite unknown to cultivators and distillers in the East.

The produce included under the name of spices comprises all aromatic vegetable products which are used in flavouring food and drinks, but almost all have other uses as well, for which they are in great request in commerce. Many are used in perfumery, or in soapmaking, such as vanilla, cloves, and pepper, others in the manufacture of incense—cinnamon. A good number are utilised in medicine, either as a flavouring, or for their special therapeutic values—cardamoms, ginger, nutmegs, etc. Turmeric is used in dyeing, especially by natives; clove oil in microscopy, and others of the spices in various arts. All these uses add to the commercial demand, and are of considerable importance to the planter.

Of late years there can be no doubt that the use of spice as flavouring by European nations has considerably diminished. In the twelfth and later centuries the use of spice in every household was very large, and was only regulated by their cost. But the last few years have shown a certain amount of falling off in the demand for spiced foods, and the spice-box is not so important a household utensil as it was. Artificial flavourings, too, have made some amount of alteration in the demand. But if profits on spices are not as large as they were in the days when, next to gold, spices were considered most worth risking life and money for, there is still a good profit to be obtained by their cultivation. The trade is still large among European nations, and the demand by orientals, the greatest spice-lovers, is as large as ever it was.

New Spice Rack
Here it is, my new spice rack.