We Take Spices For Granted8th Feb 2017
We take spices for granted, picking up whatever we need from the supermarket shelf without a second thought. But once spice was an integral part of world history – the biggest, most tightly guarded commodity that generated immense wealth, started wars, established and destroyed empires and led to the discovery of new continents.
While spices are no longer a luxury comparable to jewels and precious metals they are still an essential part of any well-appointed kitchen. “They add depth, richness and nuances to a dish, giving a whole new dimension to the plate, and appeal to some of your strongest senses,” says local food and travel writer Anèl Potgieter. “If you take a dessert like poached pears as an example, it is the enchanting star anise nestled between the pears that is so alluring, and then you smell that sweet liquorice aroma and once you have a spoonful, there is a perfect symphony that comes together in your mouth and makes your taste buds sing”.
And even though boxes, bags and bottles of spices fill whole aisles in our local supermarket, they have not quite lost their allure. Visit a spice market in parts of Africa, India or the Middle East and you will find exotic enclaves awash with indulgent pleasures. Rough sacks full of bold and vibrantly coloured powders shaped in mountain-like peaks shimmer like gold or precious stones. The air is warm, punctuated by a heady combination of mystical fragrances like cumin, coriander and saffron while the magical smoke wafting through mixes with the haggling murmurs of merchants and customers.
References to the healing properties of spices can be found in ancient writings like the Epic of Gilgamaesh, the Bhagavad Gita and the Old Testament, and it was this property that fuelled its value in the middle centuries of the last millennium. Nutmeg was believed to cure the bubonic plague, and vanilla was valued more for its purported efficacy in treating male impotence than its delicious flavour.
We may laugh at this, thinking it naïve, but do a web search today, and you will find endless references to how cinnamon regulates blood sugar and insulin, how turmeric has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, and how ginger and garlic are natural antibiotics. Vast fortunes were made and lost in the trading of spices, and the pursuit of more compact value chains fuelled bloody wars the world over, and laid the foundation for European expansion, colonialism and imperialism. The ground pepper you shake on your steak today was counted in individual peppercorns. A pound of ginger was worth a sheep and a pound of mace worth that of half a cow, and the cloves we use to add zing to an apple tart were used to pay the bonuses of London dockworkers in the 16th century.
The value of spice was not only because of its genuine utility as a flavouring, and its supposed medicinal properties – it was also due to its rarity, and the mystery attached to its origins. Europeans in the Middle Ages bought spices – and other exotic Eastern products like silk, ivory and porcelain – from merchants in the Middle East who controlled access to the trade routes further east.
The fabled Silk Road was in fact a network of many smaller routes controlled by various kingdoms and communities – each of which took their cut as the precious materials travelled west. Shrewd merchants and clever businessmen would entertain clients with captivating tales about fighting off fierce winged creatures in the dead of night to reach rare and precious spices growing high on cliff walls. And while the winged creatures were undoubtedly mythical, the trade was fraught with dangers and expenses because the route was plagued by bandits, and every small-time leader along the silk road demanded a tax – or customs duty. So the phenomenally high prices were justified.
The first European to penetrate this long terrestrial mercantile route was the Venetian Marco Polo – but his adventures merely served to bring the monopoly slightly further west, cutting out only a few of the insatiable intermediaries. So, once the Europeans had worked out how to sail out of sight of land, it was only a matter of time before they started looking for a route to the mother lode – the fabled spice islands of the East Indies, now mostly part of Indonesia.
Some, like Columbus in service to the Spanish crown, sailed west, but the Portuguese sailed south down the coast of Africa. Each expedition attempt got a little further until, finally, in 1948 Vasco da Gama reached India with the help of a pilot picked up on the Kenyan coast. A year later he returned to Lisbon with a cargo of spices and other products worth 60 times the cost of the 24,000-mile round trip, including the loss of two ships. His route traced the African coastline, establishing the Cape of Good Hope, laying the foundation for the colonisation of South Africa, and setting in motion events that were to change the world for ever.
The Portuguese hung onto their monopoly for a while but were soon ousted by the Dutch who created a stranglehold on the strategic Banda Islands, where cloves and nutmeg grew. Of course, the British couldn’t allow that so they took on the Dutch in a long-standing war that was renowned for its brutality (not that any wars are particularly gentle) and the “collateral damage” of the Bandanese who had the misfortune to be born on an island where spices grew. The English managed to hang on to one of the Banda islands, but the Dutch made it pretty difficult for them to take advantage of their “possession” so, at the Treaty of Breda in 1667, it was agreed that the British would give up all claim to the fabulously wealthy Run Island. In exchange the Dutch surrendered to the British the far less valuable Manhattan Island that was then known as New Amsterdam. The British renamed it New York. But even though that’s ancient history, the saga continues.
While we are familiar with a huge range of spices, and we haven’t had a war over culinary ingredients for centuries, there is still much to be discovered, and innovative chefs are constantly searching for new ingredients. “I remember working as a waiter in Cape Town in the late eighties, and one of the chefs came back from London with an ingredient that he raved about for weeks,” says Justin Bonello, cook and food presenter. The ingredient was rocket, something that the ancient Romans used daily and that we take for granted today, but it illustrates the constant change and transformation of spices and herbs. And while spices might not be as exotic and mysterious as yesteryear, many remain relatively unknown except in their land of origin. Sumac, which Cape Town-based chef Neill Anthony says is the spice to watch this year, is one such example. Hailing from the Middle East, Sumac is traditionally used in Persian, Lebanese, and Turkish cuisine. Its slightly acidic, fruity and sour taste and goes well on fish and chicken, and is an essential ingredient in dolmades. Justin suggests smoked Malabar tamarind is the big new thing. “If you’re lucky enough to be able to get it / find it / steal it or buy it,” he says, “it can completely transform a fish curry.”
But even relatively well-known spices are being used in ways that only a decade ago would have seemed strange indeed. Chilli, lemon grass and even black pepper are being used to flavour chocolate. Anèl, for example, describes a white chocolate ganache she made with a hint of chipotle – a Mexican smoke-dried jalapeno chilli. “The response from people was amazing,” she says.
So the story is not over yet. As our penchant for discovering new ingredients and trying out new tastes continues we’re likely to continue expanding the spice trade, retaining some of the adventure and mystique, but hopefully without the bloodshed, torture, wholesale destruction of indigenous communities and general mayhem it’s caused over the last half a millennium or so.