History of Spices

In the course of time the use of plants and particularly spices, herbs and perfumes came to be associated with the development of individual cultures. In China, some 5,000 years ago, the emperor Shen Nung assembled the first documentation on herbs. The Chinese were already eating cloves in the fourth century B.C., and a century later this spice, which among other things was prized in antiquity as an aphrodisiac, was being grown in the Moluccas.

In the Fertile Crescent those scrupulous bookkeepers, the Sumerians, handed down their testimony of hundreds of plants on clay tablets (3000-2000 B.C.). At Ur, in Mesopotamia, the people ate cereals and vegetables, flavoring them with watercress and mustard leaves, and washing everything down with beer, which they invented; this was not yet flavored with hops but probably with some local aromatic plant. The technique of brewing was then passed on to Egypt; here the basic food consisted of cereals prepared in liquid and often flavored.

The Babylonians grew bay, thyme, and coriander, and exported herbs, spices, and aromatic herbs to Egypt, which also imported from the Orient star anise, cumin, fenugreek, opium, thyme and saffron, used in food, medicine, cosmetics, and perfumery. Through their commerce with Asia, the Egyptians were also familiar with cinnamon and incense. Knowledge of aromatic plants was extremely important to them because production of oils and essences was not only vital to earthly existence but also in the attempt to conquer death through the process of embalming.

The regions of the Fertile Crescent therefore constituted an ideal bridge between the Orient and the Mediterranean basin, with a thriving trade in agricultural plants, herbs and spices.

On the Mediterranean island of Minoan Crete the plants of the families Labiatae and Umbelliferae, full of scent and flavor, were household items, then as now used for accompanying simple dishes that consisted mainly of vegetables including onions and garlic. The seeds of umbellifers (coriander, cumin) were utilized for flavoring a mixture of roasted barley meal; the basic food, in fact, was a kind of soup (kikeon), consisting of ordinary barley meal seasoned with cheese, wine, linseed, and aromatic labiates. Barley, still further diluted, was used in the preparation of a type of infusion (ptis?ne), obtained by filtering with water and which was to provide the name (tisane) for all drinks so prepared. Aromatic herbs were also employed in a fish sauce (g?ron) that was probably adopted later by the Romans for their garum.

The Etruscans (and in all likelihood the Latins) cultivated several species of cereals and also exploited woodland resources such as broad-leaved garlic (ramson), crow garlic, acorns, chestnuts, and beechnuts. Like other Mediterranean peoples, they associated such plants with woodland deities, giving pride of place to the myrtle and the laurel.

As the centuries passed, people devoted themselves more and more to non-essentials, seeking and demanding objects and products that would improve their daily lives. Tastes, smells and perfumes took on considerable significance at a time when direct relationship with others was the basic means of communication. Indeed, the improvement of food by adding spices, the search for products with stimulating qualities, the quest for perfumes designed to disguise natural body odors, were the motivating forces of the keen exchange between the zones of production and the consumers of such merchandise.

Among the earliest specialized traders in spices, herbs and perfumes were the Phoenicians. They used to transport very valuable goods on their ships.

Together with polychrome glass, much in demand in the Mediterranean, the speedy ships were laden with fish sauce (garum) and probably balms, scented oils, and essences, packed in small glass vessels. To expand this traffic the Phoenicians renounced the idea of territorial conquest and, instead of establishing a kingdom or an empire, set up colonies and trading stations, far less difficult to maintain. This strategy was readopted almost two thousand years later by the European traders. In this manner they not only supplied their own countries with foreign products but also conducted a two-way trade with other countries. In the remains of the Punic ship of Motya, near Marsala, 22 centuries after the wreck, some myrtle branches were recovered, the berries of which had been used for flavoring meat. There were also residues in containers of Cannabis indica which, when infused or mixed with bread, may have been intended to stimulate the rowing endeavors of the slaves.

From earliest times, the difficulty of preserving foodstuffs necessitated ample use of salt. It was this that probably originated the need to vary the taste of food with various flavors; salt itself was flavored with herbs and pungent seeds (sal conditus). Salt was also used for preserving condiments such as sauces. Soldiers were paid in salt (salarium) and aromatic herbs and pepper were added to make it taste more agreeable.

The Roman kitchen, especially under the Empire, was described by Apicius in the ten books of his work De re coquinaria. Bulbous vegetables such as onions, garlic, and leeks formed the basis of the Roman diet; in the modern kitchen these plants are treated mainly as flavorings but up to the present century they furnished an important supply of starch in the everyday diet. Wild vegetables such as burnet and cresses were sensibly used and brassicaceous plants like radish, horseradish and mustard were grown for their sharp taste, as well as mallow, eaten in salads.

Instead of carrots, which were not yet known in the varieties with which we are familiar today, white-rooted parsnips were cultivated, and other umbellifers such as lovage and alexanders (Smymium olusatrum), a kind of wild celery, were also popular. Herbs were important because they helped to preserve vegetables, whether cultivated or wild, which were usually covered with brine or vinegar (acetaria). Olives preserved in brine were given extra flavor with myrtle, bay, fennel or even lentisk (a common constituent of Mediterranean scrub vegetation). Coriander and cumin were used for conserving meat; and herbs served to improve the taste of such preserved foods.

Other ingredients included dill, aniseed, coriander and fennel; but far more important was lovage, nowadays confined to central European regions. Botanical identification of the laser or laserpicium (or silphium) is uncertain; this was a resinous product, obtained from a plant of the genus Ferula from Cyrenaica, the stems of which were lightly scraped; when it fell into disuse it was replaced by a Persian ferula or asafetida.


An important part of the diet was made up of fish, regularly flavored with herbs, notably cumin, mint, and pepper. Fish, too, was preserved in salt and herbs. Milk, which was generally that of the goat, was flavored with lovage and other plants used in the preparation of cheese (thyme and other labiates).

Cane sugar was known, but only as a rare product, brought by caravan from the Orient; the universal sweetener was honey, particularly the type produced by aromatic plants such as lavender, rosemary, oregano, etc.

In the first century B.C., the cedar appeared in the Mediterranean, and its leaves and fruit were both used in medicine and cooking; in the late Empire lemons were already being grown in glasshouses, this fruit having long been imported from Africa and the Orient.

Among the seeds most frequently in demand for sauces and for direct consumption were pine seeds and pistachios. Poppy seeds were used for flavoring bread, sprinkled over honey or on simple desserts, cooked on bay leaves or made into sedative infusions ceremonially offered in the evening to young brides.

Wine, a drink preferred to beer by the Greeks and Egyptians, was kept in bottles lined on the inside with pine resin and also colored with saffron or scented with flowers of elder, bitter almonds, cinnamon or umbellifer seeds. Oil of myrtle helped to improve poor quality wines. Wine to which rue, reputedly an aphrodisiac, had been added was particularly popular, but in this form it could be an irritant and poisonous. Must was flavored with fenugreek, vinegar with mint. And special liquors were prepared with infusions of absinthe, myrtle, pepper, lentisk or the flowers of roses and violets.

The most famous sauce used by the Romans was garum: this was made with aromatic herbs (dill, savory, rue, mint, etc.). fish (particularly mackerel) and salt. Other sauces were obtained with aromatic wine. Garum was a product to be used sparingly, diluted with water or vinegar or even with exotic spices such as ginger or pepper. Pepper, which was extremely costly, reached Rome only after 100 B.C.; it was also used as a medicament. Evidence of its high value is provided by the fact that Alaric, when he sacked Rome, discovered 5,000 pounds of it stored in the state of coffers. Ginger, spikenard, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmegs were brought to the Mediterranean region by caravans from Samarkand.

Roman culture, which spread via the Empire as far as the misty regions of northern Europe, was of course more closely linked with the Mediterranean, but at least the Romans brought with them the tastes of the south, with seeds and seedlings of garlic, parsley, dill, savory, mint, thyme, and sage, and introduced to continental Europe the cultivation of fennel, borage, parsley, rosemary, and thyme.

Trade with the Orient, whence came cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom, pepper, and indigo, was thrown into crisis with the decline of the Empire and, as a result, spices became very expensive. But there were always commercial links with Constantinople, through which trade in goods such as salt and salted meat could be carried out with the East.

During the eighth century trade in spices and perfumes revived. The Arabs, sailing from ports in Asia Minor, introduced saffron (zafaran = yellow) throughout the Mediterranean. It reached Spain by the ninth century. They refined chemical science and techniques: the Persian Avicenna (tenth century), in his Canon of Medicine, described the distillation of essential oils.

Spices and manufactured goods from the Orient were set fair to revive the flagging fortunes of bold entrepreneurs; and the first to profit from the European craving for foreign merchandise was Venice. In addition to silk from Damascus, Venetian ships carried spices which, at a time when tea and coffee were still unknown, helped to relieve the monotony and sparseness of the medieval kitchen; so, making their appearance on the dinner tables of the wealthy were luxuries such as ginger (cooked, raw or as seasoning), red-rooted galingale (wild ginger) from China, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper, regarded as black gold in the Mediterranean. Pepper was added to everything. From meat to wine and desserts. As in Roman times, it was universal currency. The Jews had to pay their taxes in pepper.

Access to the markets of the East spread the knowledge of other peoples, forms of government and, above all, different religions. Then, as now, money could open every door, and if cash was in short supply, craft products could be bartered. Venice engaged in this exchange of goods on a limited scale by offering what little she had, salt.

Meanwhile, invasions by warriors from Turkestan had closed the land routes to the traders in skins, amber, and honey who journeyed from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Venice was the collection point for the products of Flanders which crossed central Europe and the Alps to reach the Adriatic; and from there they went on to the Orient.

Spices, increasingly in demand, became a veritable status symbol and ever more costly.

Ceylon was the source of cinnamon, which was gathered from trees in the wild by native Tamils and Singhalese; they sold it first to the Arabs and later to Portuguese and Dutch traders.

Vanilla, unknown prior to the sixteenth century, was already being cultivated in Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. This was the only country to grow until 1846 when the Dutch plantations in Java and the French in Reunion went into production.

Because of the periodic outbreak of pandemic disease which has scourged the world from medieval to modern times, the need for a more hygienic way of life within the home eventually came to be recognized. Aromatic plants were believed to have the power of warding off plague and disease; and to this end stacks of juniper were set afire in the streets. Oregano, cinnamon, camphor and garlic were widely used (and indeed we now know that these do possess germicidal properties).

The use of aromatic plants decreased in towns and cities with the onset of the industrial revolution, but herbs and spices continued to play an important role in country kitchens. In countries that suffered most during the two World Wars, the collection of wild plants and the use of herbs helped to supplement the sparse diet, at least providing the vitamin content necessary for survival.