For millennia people have travelled, fought and paid dearly to get a share of the world’s precious spices.
These exotic goods from the Far East were as much in demand as pure gold and were borne across ancient trade routes to Europe.
The Great Silk Route from China, where caravans of camels trekked through burning deserts and ice-covered mountain passes all the way to the Mediterranean coast, was controlled by Arab merchants throughout antiquity.
Spices were also freighted across the seas from Indonesia and India. In the 1480s, the Portuguese discovered the sea route around the southern tip of Africa and after only a few decades established control of the “Spice Islands” (the Molluccas), securing a monopoly on nutmeg and cloves for one hundred years.
In America and the West Indies, where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492 believing he had reached India, the Spaniards found the new spices chili, vanilla and allspice.
No trade without war – and no war without trade. The Portuguese and Spaniards were gradually forced to give up control over their spice business to the English, French and Dutch, who with their efficient colonial powers set up East Indian companies and transport systems that enabled them to ruthlessly exploit their access to spices.
Besides being used to refine the taste of food, spices also served various other purposes, such as medicinal and aphrodisiac effects, conservation and embalming. In Rome in the year A.D. 70, Pliny the Elder bemoaned the enormous amount of gold that the Empire’s coffers lost to such wares: “According to our lowest estimates, India and Arabia are draining 100 million sesterces from the Empire every year -
so dearly do we pay for our luxuries and our women.”
- The earliest sign of the use of spices was found in Peru, where residue of allspice was identified near gravesites dated about 5,000 B.C. The Indians of the region are thought to have used this spice to embalm their deceased chiefs.
- Both the Chinese and the Egyptians used spices from 2,000 to 3,000 B.C., and clear traces have also been found from the ancient Indus culture in present-day Pakistan.
- We have more certain evidence about the amounts, types and trade routes of spices from the period in antiquity after the Arabs began trading spices. The ancient Greeks and Romans used the finest spices from the East. The Prophet Mohammed (570-632), who founded the Moslem religion, was originally a spice trader in Mecca.
- In the Middle Ages, the Arab world reached from Turkey and the Middle East across all of northern Africa and far up into Spain, and the spice trade thrived throughout Europe, with many Jewish merchants serving as trading agents.
- In the twelfth century, the Crusades made the Italian ports of Genoa and Venice into goldmines for trade in spices and other goods.
- In the 1400s, the great seafaring and exploring nations of Spain and Portugal were the chief spice traders.
- From about 1600 to the 1800s, world trade was dominated by England, Holland and France through their far-reaching colonial powers.
You must crush and grind spices to release their aromatic oils, and since the dawn of time people have used a mortar for this purpose.
The mortar is still a recognized basic unique tool usually made of stone or ceramics, because they are hard, pure and resistant.
Ground spice quickly loses the aroma unleashed from its elusive oils. It is therefore important to preserve spices whole until they are to be used.
In addition, you should always store spices in a dry, dark location under cover.
This is how people handled spices for centuries.
But in 1842, a decisive change occurred…