Spices in History




Among the various foods we eat, few have had such a fascinating and mysterious history as spices.

The word spice comes from the Latin "species", a term that in addition to the original meaning "species" was assumed in the Middle Ages that of goods or foodstuffs and then became synonymous with drugs.

The search for spices led to the discovery and conquest of continents and the foundation and destruction of empires. At one time spices were as precious as gold, were jealously guarded, and were considered a treasure of inestimable value. They were the "goods" par excellence, which came from the Far East. Obtained from roots, bark, shoots, seeds and berries, they were used to flavor and preserve food, for food, medicinal, perfume and for a thousand other uses.


The origin of the spice trade

The use of spices predates written history; archaeologists have discovered that they were already used in ancient civilizations. The Chinese already used cinnamon in 3000 b.C. and the ancient Egyptians used spices for embalming. Slaves and peasants fed on garlic and onion, and aromatic plants were in daily use.

In the tomb of Tutankhamen many types of spices have been found. The Bible also mentions spices as commodities of great value several times.

Moses had anointed the Ark of the Covenant with cinnamon and cassia, and King Solomon received as a gift from the Queen of Sheba, in addition to jewelry and gold, also precious spices. The Phoenicians, a people of merchants and navigators, played the role of commercial distributors of spices in the Mediterranean until Tyre, their capital, was conquered by Alexander the Great.

The Greeks followed several routes for the transport of goods from the East, and the oldest was certainly the one that from the Indian coast of Malabar went up the Persian Gulf, crossed the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates up to Babylon and Antioch.


The spice trade in the Roman times

The Romans undertook sea voyages that led them to India in the first century after Christ.

They were very risky journeys, which lasted even two years, before the discovery of the twenty monsoons. Following this discovery, the duration of the journeys to India was reduced to less than a year, and allowed to shorten the time and facilitate the transport of precious cargo. The Romans became great consumers of spices, which they used in medicine, perfumery, cosmetics and, of course, in cooking.

The most precious spices came to Rome from China and India along the ancient caravan routes and in particular the "Silk Road". Arab merchants amassed great wealth thanks to the insatiable appetite for exotic and spicy flavors of the voluptuous Romans. There was a great use of spices in Roman cuisine; these were indispensable because they improved the preservation of meat and fish, difficult due to the lack of refrigeration and modern preservatives.

Coriander, cloves, mustard, anise and cinnamon were spices known and used by the Romans in their refined cuisine, but the prince of spices was undoubtedly black pepper, available in different qualities and in large quantities.

When in 408 d.C. Rome was besieged by the Goths, who knew the value of silk, gold and pepper and received large quantities from the Romans as a tribute to avoid the looting of the city. After the fall of Rome and the Western Empire, new trade routes developed, and Constantinople became the center of the spice trade between East and West.


Spices in the Middle Ages

The fall of Rome marked a phase of arrest in trade with the East. The seventh century saw the rise of Islam and the Arab nation, which in the mid-eighth century expanded from Spain to the borders of China. For 400 years few spices arrived in Europe; in the political chaos of the Middle Ages Europe had nothing to offer in exchange for precious goods.

The few spices that came were directed to the rich noble palaces or monasteries. Charlemagne, at the end of his reign, ordered that in all the imperial possessions about seventy aromatic herbs and spices suitable for temperate climates were cultivated.

At that same time the first medicinal gardens were built in the monasteries, with cumin, fenugreek, fennel, rosemary, sage, mint, coriander, nigella and poppy flower beds. Commercial traffic with the East resumed again in the eleventh century with the Crusades, when crusaders and pilgrims went to the Holy Land and began to appreciate the spicy taste of the typical foods of hot climates.

Genoa and especially Venice became the main centers of import of new goods and ensured control over trade with the East.


The new routes to India and the struggle for the Moluccas' control

The European powers contended by all means for the monopoly of the spice trade, and many navigators repeatedly took the sea route to discover new routes that led to the East.

In 1418 the Portuguese Henry the Navigator sent some expeditions to discover new routes.

Vasco de Gama, in 1498, after a 10-month journey discovered the sea route to the Indies via the Cape of Good Hope, and returned from Calcutta not only with a rich cargo of spices and jewels, but with the important news that the Indian government intended to open trade with Portugal, which in 1506 established the monopoly of the Crown on the spice trade.

After long clashes with the Arabs, who controlled trade in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese in 1510 settled in Ceylon and Goa. Here they exploited the cinnamon forests and enslaved the populations who worked there, imposing their control over a very profitable traffic and going as far as the Moluccas, then called "Spice Islands", where cloves, nutmegs and pepper were grown.

At the same time the Spaniards, who had important territorial ambitions, in 1492 financed the expedition of Christopher Columbus, who, sailing westwards, discovered the New World, but not the spices he was looking for.

In 1512 the Portuguese Antonio D'Abreu reached the Banda archipelago, and Francisco Serao founded a factory for the spice trade.

The possession of the Moluccas was long disputed between Spain and Portugal, until in 1529 Charles V, with the Treaty of Zaragoza, renounced all his rights in favor of the King of Portugal against pecuniary compensation.

The Portuguese had as their objective the territorial acquisitions, the control of trade and the spread of Catholicism, and their missionary zeal made them unpopular with the local populations, mostly Muslims, who welcomed with relief the Dutch conquest.


The East india company

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries the India Companies were born, engaged in trade with the East Indies (the territories east of the Cape of Good Hope, East Africa and Asia) and with the West Indies (West Africa and America), which arose to join the forces of England, Holland, France and Portugal in the commercial conquest of the other continents. The Indian Companies allowed Europe to source silk, spices and products from all over the world, and to dominate the peoples of Asia, Africa and America.

The Companies of the Indies were national associations of merchants, interested in associating to better deal with the costs of travel and pirates, dividing the risks of companies and their benefits and high profits.

The governments favored their merchants, so as not to depend on the supply of the colonials from other states, and issued Charters that granted the Companies the monopoly of trade with the Colonies, and exemption from the payment of taxes as well as political privileges such as entering into treaties, administering justice and waging wars.


The British India Company

The English India Company was founded in London in 1599, and in 1600 obtained from Queen Elizabeth I the monopoly of trade with the territories east of the Cape of Good Hope. After years of wars with the Dutch for control of the Indian Ocean, a partition agreement was reached in 1623; to the British went India, and to the Dutch Ceylon and Indonesia.

In India the Company bought pepper, coffee and sugar, while from China it imported silks and tea, to be resold in Europe and America.

The Privileges of the Society were enormous, and after winning France for the domination of India, it dominated and oppressed the local populations until 1784, when William Pitt's "India Act" placed the Company under the control of the British government to limit its autonomy.

Meanwhile, the industrial revolution in England had provoked dissension on the part of industrialists, who opposed the import of products from Asia in competition with domestic production.

In 1833 the "Peel Law" stripped the company of all commercial privileges, in 1858 the Company was dissolved, and the Queen directly assumed the government of India.


The Dutch East India Company

In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was formed and granted a monopoly for 21 years of Dutch trade between the Cape of Good Hope and the Strait of Magellan,

In the first half of the seventeenth century the Dutch drove the Portuguese out of Ceylon, the Moluccas and the Banda Islands, laid siege to Malacca and established their base at Batava on the island of Java.

To control the production of cloves and nutmegs they uprooted entire plantations and allowed their cultivation only on certain islands, hindering all forms of trade, to prevent the Chinese and other traders from selling spices to the Portuguese and English. Their profits were very high.

The success was such that it led to a saturation of the European market and a devaluation of the spice, so that in Amsterdam the stocks accumulated over 10 years were burned to keep prices high on the European market.

The road to spice monopoly had proved very expensive for the Dutch and in 1799 the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt soon after the spread of the first batch of French cloves, grown from smuggled stolen seeds and collected in Mauritius in 1776.


Spices in the Modern Era

New plantations were started in other French tropical colonies: the Seychelles, Reunion, Cayenne and Zanzibar. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, no longer having any country the exclusive monopoly of spices, prices began to fall and spices became less and less rare, and within the reach of many.

Today spices come from many different countries, and, after centuries of struggle for control of their trade, they are in common use and easily available. However, they remain ingredients that are never trivial, and arouse an ever-increasing interest. The vitality and magic of these ancient aromas has been preserved over time, and makes even the simplest recipe special and refined.



At ROMA FINE FOODS you will find over 300 varieties of Spices, Aromatic Herbs and Ingredients to discover (visit our website).

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