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
Culinary herbs
A spice timeline

Table of Spices
Allspice (Pimento)
Black Pepper
Chile Pepper
Coriander (Cilantro)
Frankincense and Myrrh
Nutmeg and Mace

Contacts and Acknowledgments


Spices can improve the palatability and the appeal of dull diets or spoiled food. Piquant flavors stimulate salivation and promote digestion. Pungent spices can cause sweating, which may even cause a cooling sensation in tropical climates; on the other hand they can add a sense of inner warmth when present in cooked foods used in cold climates. Local and inexpensive herbs and flavors, such as garlic, onion and horseradish, sufficed for the poorer people of old Europe, but influential, rich hosts would wish to impress or politically intimidate their guests with the liberal use of rare exotic spices. These expensive imports could be added in large amounts and in complex mixtures to each course and to accompanying alcoholic beverages to provide a gustatory statement about the wealth, power and initiative of the host. Thus, spices served to make a political statement when a baronial lord invited possible rivals to an expensive display of profligacy at a sumptuous banquet.

Spices also fitted into philosophic concepts of improving health, since it was understood that they could affect the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) and influence the corresponding moods (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic). Thus, ginger would be used to heat the stomach and improve digestion; clove was believed to comfort the sinews; mace would prevent colic and bloody fluxes or diarrhea; nutmeg would benefit the spleen and relieve any bad cold. Cinnamon, one of the most popular flavors in cooking, was considered to be particularly good for digestion and for sore throats. Hot pungent spices were used more liberally in winter diets or to treat “cold” diseases accompanied by excess phlegm. It is noteworthy that rheumatism was believed to be caused by abnormal “rheum”, or phlegm; the appropriate therapy would be pepper – just as it is today, with the topical use of capsaicin, a chile pepper extract.

Spices, along with salt, would have been incorporated in mixtures to pickle and preserve meats; the pungent spices were useful for relieving the salty taste of such foods. Aromatic spices, such as cloves, cardamon and mint, would be useful to disguise the foul breath of onion and garlic eaters who were likely to have additional halitosis from caries and gingivitis. Burnt spices or incenses could be used to help counteract the malodors that were prevalent in rich homes that lacked sanitary mechanisms for the disposition of excreta and rotting foods. Some spices, such as pepper and cinnamon, do have antimicrobial properties, but their reputation as food preservatives is unwarranted.

One fascinating tribute to the value of spices, such as peppercorn, was their acceptance in medieval times as a substitute for money; thus, some landlords would be paid a “peppercorn rent”. Conquerers would accept spice stores as booty or as a victory tax. The flow of pepper along trade routes provided opportunities for trade taxes to be imposed at major trading cities by Arabians, Egyptians, Turks and Venetians. The increasing custom duties in the 15th century resulted in a 30-fold rise in the price of Indian pepper, at a time when the social desire for pepper and other exotic spices was maximal. Changes in pepper prices had an effect on national economies and on aggressive reactions comparable to that seen in the Western appetite for fuel oil today.

Chocolate pods at one time were so valued that they also were used as the equivalent of money by Aztecs. The excessive value of spices in Europe is revealed by the fact that Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe started with five ships which were supplied to last their 250 or so crew members for many months; the expedition limped home with only one ship and an emaciated crew of 18 surviving men who returned to Spain in 1522 after their three-year horrendous expedition. Despite their enormous losses, the incredibly valuable cargo of 50,000 pounds of cloves and nutmegs from the Moluccas made the enterprise seem like a commercial success.

Spice Exhibit URL: http://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice/index.cfm

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