Learning about Spices
What is a spice?
Why were spices important?
Sources of spices
Perfumes and Incenses
Use of spices as aphrodisiacs
Use of spices as medicines
A spice timeline
Table of Spices
Frankincense and Myrrh
Nutmeg and Mace
Contacts and Acknowledgments
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|Genus Species||Saccharum officinarum
|Cultivated|| Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Egypt, south Africa, India, Pakistan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Australia, USA|
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|Description|| When cane sugar, from Saccharum officinarum, started to become a popular sweetener in the Renaissance, it was regarded as an exotic spice, along with all things nice. This important food took an immensely long time to reach Europe although it had probably been cultivated in India since 800 B.C. It may have arisen in Polynesian islands before reaching India; it subsequently spread east to China and west to Persia. The Crusaders brought it back with them to Europe in the 11th century, but it remained a rare luxury for 400 years. The Venetians, who had become powerful traders by ferrying Crusaders to the Middle East, made sugar available to the rich of other countries. Sugar entered cooking in the 16th century, and this use was also described by Nostradamus. Prior to the use of sugar, honey was the main sweetener, and some flavorful honeys were exported by producing countries as spices. See a list of Sugars.|
The discovery of the New World prompted Columbus to bring sugar cane there on a subsequent voyage, and soon it was being grown on many Caribbean islands and in Mexico. Subsequently, the Portugese established sugar cane in Brazil, while other European colonialists started plantations in their possessions. It was grown in Sicily, Cyprus, the Canary Islands and on other Atlantic islands. The difficulty in cultivating sugar cane in tropical climates spurred the slave trade.
In the U.S., sugar cane was introduced into several states such as Florida, Louisiana and Hawaii. In the 18th century, sugar was being extracted from sugar beets, and this source subsequently led to some decline in sugar imports from sugar cane countries. Currently, about 30% of the world’s sugar comes from beets. Currently, in spite of increasing sugar usage, there is excessive sugar production and irrational sugar trading based on local government policies involving subsidies and protection of favored growers. Sugar exports now come mainly from Brazil, Australia, Europe, Thailand and South Africa.
The ancient Indians knew how to extract sugar (sarkara) from cane, but did not refine it. Marco Polo in the 13th century reported that although the Chinese used a great deal of dark sugar, they did not refine it whereas in Egypt and also in Venice purer sugar was manufactured. Over the centuries, numerous forms of sugar have been favored. When the cane is crushed it releases a sweet juice, and leaves a fibrous mass of bagasse: fungal colonization of this can result in workers developing a hypersensitivity pneumonitis termed bagassosis. The crude juice is improved by removing impurities with slaked lime and carbon dioxide, and it is evaporated to form a brown syrupy product which can be readily converted into molasses. This was the source of the brown sugars (such as turbinado, Muscovado and Demarara) that were common in the 17-19th centuries. Sugar in impure form and molasses were brought to New England, and trading interests helped ensure that excess molasses was converted into rum. Refining of crude sugar results in white crystal sugar, which can be used in granulated or powdered forms or as lumps. In previous times, sugar loaves were marketed, while rich banquet hosts had their chefs produce sugar sculptures similar to ice sculptures.
When sugar was first used in ancient Greece and Rome it was regarded mainly as a medicine, but it was used in food by the very rich. Venice in the 10th century started building its fortunes by importing sugar along with spices and silks from the Orient. The Arabs introduced crystallized sugar as qandi (which gives us our word candy) and various products of sugar such as syrups and caramel. Apothecaries made pleasing medicines with imaginative use of these products. By the 16th century, there was an increasing availability of sugar from ports in the New World as well as Asia, and it became familiar in the diet, especially as a sweetener of the new spices, coffee and chocolate, and subsequently tea. See a list of spices by Taste and Hotness.
|Useful Parts|| Juice from the stalks produces sugar.|
|Medicinal Properties|| The brown sugars are more complex and flavorful; they contain calcium, iron and vitamins. It is an interesting aspect of human behavior that now ensures that the formerly cheaper products are coming back into favor (as more expensive products!) since they are more nutritious than white sugar. In the 19th century sugar from beets added to the world’s supply, and this formerly rare spice – a luxurious food and an impressive medicine – gradually came to assume its present role as an addictive necessity that endangers health.|
See chemicals in spices.
|Historical View|| “Sugar is of little importance in a medical point of view. In the form of lozenges, sugar candy, etc. it allays tickling cough by slowly dissolving in the mouth. It is nutritious, but in consequence of not containing nitrogen, it is not capable in itself of supporting life. It is a powerful antiseptic, and is largely used for preserving meat and fruit.”|
Bentley, Robert and Henry Trimen. Medicinal Plants; being descriptions with original figures of the principal plants employed in medicine and an account of the characters, properties, and uses of their parts and products of medicinal value. London, Churchill, 1880. (WZ 295 B556m 1880)
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