Spice - The History of a Temptation
by Jack Turner
Harper Collins: (409pp) £25.00
Columbus found America ; Magellan circumnavigated the globe, and Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India . These three adventurers were the standard-bearers for the age of discovery, but were in fact driven not so much by a passion for exploration as by the potential rewards for satisfying Europe ’s all-consuming hunger for spice. Jack Turner’s history of the spice race, and of the tastes and appetites that ignited it, is a tour de force, and it gives a full account of the exploits of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries’ 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 the salty, rotting meat they ate, spices have, since antiquity, had reputations as aphrodisiacs. The very word ‘spice’ conjures up, in Turner’s words, ‘exotic, forbidden delights, while at the same time forewarning of strong flavours’. Tennyson – like Shakespeare, Marlowe and others before him - waxed lyrical on the ‘boundless east’ where ‘those long swells of breaker sweep / The nutmeg rocks and isles of clove’.
Turner’s aim is to explain how spices came to be so extraordinarily desirable, and the book is far from being a conventional history. There are chapters discussing the human passions that drove spice exploration, which chart the use of the substances in ceremonies surrounding birth, death, cuisine, sex, medicine and magic – almost every one of man’s enduring rituals. At the end of all this an epilogue recounts how spices became the ‘mildly exotic’ foodstuffs they are today (even Coca Cola, according to a leaked recipe included in a history of the soft drink by Mark Pendergrast, contains cinnamon and nutmeg).
By far the most important spice historically is pepper – the fruit of the Piper Nigrum, a climbing vine native to India ’s Malabar Coast . The clove is the unripe, dried flower bud of the Syzygium aromaticum evergreen tree, found on Zanzibar and the Indonesian islands. Nutmeg and mace are produced by the same tree, Myristica fragrans. Cinnamon comes from the small evergreen Cinnamomum zeylanicum, native to Sri Lanka ; the spice is formed from the stripped inner bark. Finally, ginger (Zingiber officinale) is from a perennial herbaceous plant originally found in South East Asia, but has been cultivated for so long that it can no longer be found in the wild. The further these archetypal Asian spices were transported 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…. In the European imagination there never was, and perhaps never will be again, anything like them.’
The range of uses to which man has put spices over the centuries is awesome. ‘The first known consumer of pepper … was in fact a corpse; the royal skin and bones of Ramses the Second’. Peppercorns were inserted up his nose soon after his demise on 12 July 1224 BC . ‘The most famous spiced corpse of them all’ was not that of a rich Roman but of a ‘poor subject of Roman Judaea’ – the body of Christ, which, in the gospels of Luke and John, was wrapped in linen and anointed with spices.
The medical properties of spices have also been exploited throughout history. ‘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.’ However, ‘The spice trade might conceivably have played … a direct role in the great outbreak of the Black Death of 1348’ – a plague supposedly brought by galleys returning to Italy from the Black Sea.
Spices figure in all the sexual remedies in De coitu, written by Constantine , the pre-eminent Carthage-born sexologist of the eleventh century. (‘For impotence he advises an electuary of ginger, pepper, galangal, cinnamon and various herbs, to be taken sparingly after lunch and dinner.’) Furthermore, ‘As late as the eighteenth century it was still the custom for English newlyweds to be served a “posset” immediately before retiring to the wedding bed: a mixture of wine, milk, egg yolk, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.’ Continuing the theme, Marcel Proust, author of the idiosyncratic Le Paradis sexual des aphrodisiaques (1971) ‘cites the Kama Sutra as his authority that ground pepper can be applied directly to the penis before intercourse’. Cinnamon produced extraordinary results when fed to mice: ‘all experienced abnormal genital growth, and the males experienced dramatic increase in their sperm count’. The part of the brain ‘that processes smells also deals 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, for instance, contains nutmeg and clove, while Opium by Yves St Laurent has pepper in it.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, anyone who was prepared to endure the dangers of an arduous voyage to the East could, with luck and perseverance, get rich. But since then, over the course of several centuries of extraordinary history (recounted with wonder in Jack Turner’s book), spices have become commonplace in the modern world. This is an extremely entertaining book, well researched and beautifully organised, which brilliantly evokes the lost spice age.