For thousands of years dried leaves, roots, berries and bark have travelled the legendary trade routes of antiquity, by sea from India to the gulf of Arabia and then by camel to the Mediterranean coast.
Over 3,000 years ago Arabian merchants had a virtual monopoly on the spice trade, their only competition coming from the Phoenicians who, being capable sailors, could circumnavigate around Africa by sea. By the time of Christ other seafarers had also learned how to navigate the distance.
Around the 8th Century new routes were opened up from the Indus river across the Caspian sea and reaching up into Russia. At this time the trade was very much influenced by the followers of the new Islam religion of Mohammed and as they travelled and traded in spices they also spread knowledge of how to use them, along with their culture. When the Moors arrived in Spain at about the same time they also brought this same trade and knowledge with them.
Considerable rivalry for the spice trade had now developed between Turkey and Egypt. From Egypt, spices travelled up via Italy to the great trading centres throughout Europe and Scandinavia, including the Hanseatic League in Bruges. Egypt then decided to tax all spice entering the country which resulted in the considerable raising of prices, to the point where Pepper became almost priceless. In fact Pepper was used to pay taxes and rents and there was even a time when it was counted Peppercorn by Peppercorn. Up until this period the Europeans had been kept in the dark as to the source of all this wealth.
By the 12th Century the Venetian, Marco Polo, undertook his legendary chronicle of the spice routes he travelled and as a result of these eye witness accounts a young Genoese named Christopher Columbus was inspired to find a new route by travelling westward. This led of course to the discovery of America in the 15th Century.
From the 15th Century Portugal financed several expeditions in search of the source of spices with such famous navigators as Magellan, Diaz and Vasco De Gama. By now the Europeans had also learned to find more direct and much faster ways than the traditional route through Egypt which took two years to arrive.
By the 16th Century Portugal and Spain had divided control of the Indian Ocean causing great concern to Egypt and Italy who saw their trade dwindling. By the end of the century the Dutch had declared their independence and, not being able to obtain spices from Spain or England, they decided to go to India themselves. Within 100 years, they had taken over from Portugal as ‘Lords of the sea’.
Meanwhile in England, by the 12th Century a guild of Pepperers was formed, which in 1345 became the Worshipful Company of Grocers. England started increasing its sea power and in 1577 Sir Francis Drake reached India, returning home with cargoes of spices. More and more English traders followed and by 1600 the East India Company was founded to handle the increasing trade.
For the next two centuries there was great rivalry and bitterness between the English, Dutch, Portuguese and French. This basically explains the development of colonisation in the spice-growing countries and the following period of great prosperity for them. Today many of these countries, although now long independent of colonial rule, still rely to a great extent on their spice crops for a healthy economy. The journey is now, however, only a matter of weeks and only a fraction of the time and the danger endured by our ancestors.
Although there are now many chemical and other methods of preserving food, world demand for spices has not diminished. There is still great demand in the traditional countries of origin, and an increasing demand in the western world, for spices as interest in preparing nutritious tasty food increases.
By using herbs and spices on your food you are participating in a ritual that was once confined to the privileged few. You are also using a commodity that is amongst the oldest, and for a long time, one of the most precious in the history of humanity. Few items in your kitchen cupboard have the background of history, romance and passion.
Isn’t it exciting to realise that all the history and mystique of herbs and spices are still available, just waiting for you to unlock the unique taste experiences.