A Very Brief History of Spices

Walk into a modern day kitchen and you will most likely see a spice rack or find a cabinet full of dried, bottled leaves. Most likely there will be spices from all over the world, from Asia to the Caribbean. Man has used spice for a variety of applications other than cooking for thousands and thousands of years though. Some would even say that spice was the major impetus for the beginning of The Age of Exploration. There are many fantastic stories about man’s relationship with these coveted commodities. Did you know that Alexander the Great’s horse supposedly first discovered Himalayan Sea Salt when it started licking a mountain? Here is a very brief history of man and spice.

History has left us with a record of the many uses of spices. Since 50,000 BCE., humans have been collecting specific plants not for their caloric value but for their taste and curative properties. It is believed that the first use of herbs and spices was of a medicinal nature. Indeed, scientific studies have yielded results showing that certain spices can inhibit the growth of certain bacterias. For example, garlic has anti-fungal properties because it is rich in allicin and natural sulfur compounds.

The Romans have a storied past with spices. The great author and naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote about the uses of clove in the 1st century CE.  We can thank them for the modern day namesake for one thing. The English derivative comes from the Latin root of “species”, a multifaceted word meaning sight, appearance and also beauty. This romanticized meaning must have stemmed from the panoply of colors the Oriental spice merchants displayed for the citizens of the Empire when their caravans arrived through the gates of Rome.

With the many plagues and pandemics of the Middle Ages, spices were once again called into service for their healing properties. Doctors believed at the time that people fell ill when the bodily humors became imbalanced with each other. Spices were prescribed to return these humors to the proper levels. Science has since moved beyond the theory of humorism, but the healing powers of simple spices are effective nonetheless.

What drove the great explorers of Europe and Asia to venture forth on uncharted routes to uncharted lands? Spices of course. The trade of these valuable commodities was big business indeed. The Republic of Venice grew wealthy and powerful due to its monopoly over the spice trade in the 16th century, prompting others to find new ways to import and export their goods. Christopher Columbus was famously searching for a new overseas route to India in an attempt to bring Spain into prominence in the spice trade.  Jamaican all-spice, a key ingredient in Wildly Natural One, was brought back to Europe for the first time by Columbus during his second voyage and quickly became popular.


~ by wildlynaturalone on April 3, 2011.

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