Spice: the History of a Temptation

by Jack Turner
ISBN: 000257067X

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A Review of: The Spice Trade
by Christopher Ondaatje

Columbus found America; Magellan circumnavigated the globe, and Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India. These three adventurers were indeed the standard bearers of the age of discovery, driven, in fact, not so much by the will to discover as by the all-consuming hunger for spice. It is difficult to imagine that anything more could be written about spices than in this exemplary book, The Spice Trade, by Jack Turner. It is a tour de force and gives a very full account of the early spice race, including the exploits of the 15th and 16th century explorers.
What was the true lure of spice? Apart from the fact that medieval Europeans needed enormous quantities of pepper, ginger and cinnamon to disguise the smell and taste of salt and rotting meat, spices have had a reputation as aphrodisiacs from the days of antiquity. The very word spice itself conjures up "a hint of exotic forbidden delights, while at the same time forewarning of strong flavours .." Shakespeare, Marlowe and Tennyson all waxed lyrical on the "boundless east" where "those long swells of breakers sweep / The nutmeg rocks and isles of clove."
Let's face it, for thousands of years spices have instilled in man a vast array of promised allure and the aim of Jack Turner's entrancing book is to explain how spices came to acquire their extraordinary invisible freight. It is a sprawling history spanning several millennia and the sources on spices the author has used are "as diverse and as far flung as the spices themselves, ranging from the scholarly to the culinary, the literary to the sexual, from the bookishly pious to the way-out bizarre."
This is far from being a conventional history. After an absorbing discussion of the Spice Race in the 15th and 16th centuries, when Europe expended unimaginable effort in the search for spice, the following chapters contemplate the interests propelling that search. These were based on the perceived requirements of cuisine, sex, medicine, magic, palate, body and spirit-almost all the basic necessities of life. At the end of all this an epilogue recounts the reasons behind the eventual fall of spices from grace to the rather common exotic foodstuffs they are today.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines spice as "one or other of various strongly flavoured or aromatic substances of vegetable origin, obtained from tropical plants, commonly used as condiments or employed for other purposes on account of their fragrance and preservative qualities." Thus, the author explains, a spice is not a herb. "Herbs are leafy, whereas spices are obtained from other parts of the plant: bark, root, flower bud, gums and resins, seed, fruit or stigma. Herbs tend to grow in temperate climates; spices in the tropics. Historically, the implication was that a spice was far less readily obtainable than a herb, and far more expensive." By far the most exceptional and historically significant spice is pepper-the fruit of the Piper Nigrum-a climbing vine native to India's Malabar Coast. The clove, on the other hand, is the dried and unripe flower bud of the Syzygium aromaticum evergreen tree found in the groves of Zanzibar and the Indonesian islands. Nutmeg and mace are two other spices produced by the same tree Myristica fragrans, native to Indonesia but also found in the West Indies. Then there is cinnamon from the small unassuming evergreen Cinnamomum zeylanicum, native to the wet zone of Sri Lanka. The spice is formed from the stripped inner bark. Finally ginger, the last major spice Zingiber officinale, is from a perennial herbaceous plant native to South East Asia but cultivated for so long that it is no longer found in a wild state. These archetypal Asian spices are the main subjects of this book and, amazingly, "the further these spices travelled from their origins the more interesting they became, the greater the passions they aroused, the higher their value, the more outlandish the properties credited to them. What was special in Asia was astonishing in Europe. In the European imagination there never was, and perhaps never will be again, anything like them."
This is an extremely entertaining book-well researched and beautifully organised. Here are some of the more unusual gems the author has unearthed:

"The first known consumer of pepper was in fact a corpse-the royal skin and bones of Rameses the Second. Peppercorns were inserted up his nose not long after his death on 12 July 1224 BC."

"The most famous spiced corpse of them all was not a rich Roman but a poor subject of Roman Judaea-the body of Christ which was wrapped in linen and anointed with spices as the manner of the Jews is to bury'."

"In T'ang China cloves were used for driving off evils' and getting rid of evil things'. In India the Uzbek polymath Al Biruni (973 - 1048) witnessed the use of cloves against smallpox."

"The spice trade might conceivably have played a direct role in the great outbreak of the Black Death of 1348-a plague being attributed to galleys returning to Italy from the Black Sea.

"Spices figure in all sexual remedies in De coitu written by Constantine the pre-eminent Greek born sexologist of the 11th century. For impotence he advises an electuary of ginger, pepper, galangal, cinnamon and various herbs to be taken sparingly after lunch and dinner."

"As late as the 18th century it was still the custom for English newly-weds to be served a posset' immediately before retiring to the wedding bed: a mixture of wine, milk, egg yolk, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg."

"A Middle English guide to women's health suggests three ounces of powdered cloves with four egg yolks will make a woman conceive."

"Marcel Proust, the author of the idiosyncratic le Paradis sexual de aphrodisiaques cites the Kama Sutra as his authority that ground pepper can be applied directly to the penis before intercourse."

"The first spicy woman of literature was the enigmatic Queen of Sheba. There are no more such abundance of spices as those which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.'"

"It is true that the part of the brain that processes smells also deal with appetites. People lacking a sense of smell commonly report diminished sex drive, and certain odours can indeed stimulate desire."

"Calvin Klein's perfume Obsession contains nutmeg and cloves; Opium by Yves St Laurent has pepper."

"Cinnamon fed mice produced extraordinary results: all experienced abnormal genital growth, and the males experienced dramatic increase in their sperm count."

"Mark Pendergast's history of Coca Cola concludes with a leaked copy of the formula of the world's most popular and symbolic soft drink, which is, it would seem, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg."

Anyone who was prepared to endure the dangers of an arduous voyage to the East, and to subject himself to the inevitable perils of unknown tropical diseases could, with luck and perseverance, get rich. But then, over the course of several centuries of extraordinary history, recounted with wonder in Jack Turner's book, spices were ferried into the modern world eventually producing, with modernity, "that deadly quality attainability." It is this attainability, more than anything else, that signalled the end of the Spice Age.

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