Surprising Historic Facts About the Spices in Your Cupbaord

Posted by Abigail Schmidt on August 04, 2014 (0 Comments)

You will never look at your salt shaker or pepper grinder the same once you know the profound history behind these and other ordinary spices in your cupboard…

The history of spices is an epic subject as old as the history of civilization. In ancient times, spices were used as much as for their medicinal properties as they were for their flavors. They were also extremely valuable currency. As time progressed, the spice trade was integral in the development of commerce and capitalism. Many historians say that the spice trade was the most instrumental force in shaping western civilization.

Here are some extraordinary - but by no means comprehensive - historical facts about the most common cupboard spices...

Salt -  Salt use dates back to at least 6050 BC, although it is assumed to have begun even before this. It is the oldest known food preservative and it's what the ancient Egyptians used to preserve, or ‘embalm’, their mummies. The word salary was derived from the word salt because in ancient times salt was also a form of currency; Ancient Roman soldiers were paid with sacks of salt & Ancient Greeks bought slaves with salt. The royalty of British, French and Chinese empires supported themselves and military operations by taxing the salt trade.

Pepper - Pepper, as in the black peppercorns in your pepper grinder, is native to India where it has been used since prehistoric times. Its earliest recorded use is 2000 BC In ancient Egypt, in a burial ritual for royal which involved literally stuffing the deceased’s nose with pepper, as evidenced by the peppercorns found in the mummified nostrils of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. Historic accounts from the rise to the fall of the Roman Empire speak of pepper as both valuable currency and a coveted luxury for the cuisine of only the elite wealthy citizens of Rome.  

Cinnamon - Though mostly indigenous to Sri Lanka and Indonesia, cinnamon was regarded as a gift for royalty in ancient civilizations. The ancient Egyptians used cinnamon as an aromatic agent in their embalming process. The Arabs established a spice route bringing cinnamon to European empires while they maintained the secrecy of its source until the 16th century.  In the middle ages, the western world had literally no idea where cinnamon came from. In fact, one of the reasons that Christopher Columbus was so excited about his discovery of the new world was that he believed he’d discovered cinnamon. He excitedly wrote the Queen of Spain and sent her samples of his findings. When she received them, the Queen in turn informed him that he was mistaken; he had simply send her tree bark. How embarrassing!

Nutmeg & Mace - Nutmeg and mace are two separate parts of one fruit indigenous to the islands of Indonesia.  Nutmeg is the egg-shaped seed while Mace is the reddish net-like covering attached to the seed.  Much political turmoil was caused by the demand for nutmeg over the centuries. One of the worst events being the bloody conquest of the island of Banda by the Dutch in 1621 for the sole purpose of controlling the production of nutmeg. The Dutch enslaved the locals and proceeded to establish nutmeg plantations. Hopefully the future of nutmeg is much more peaceful from here on out.

Cumin - This spice was originally cultivated from India to the Mediterranean.  It is known to be in culinary use since 2000 BC and, oh yes, the ancient Egyptians used cumin, of course, in the process of embalming mummies. The ancient Greeks had cumin shakers on their dining room tables way before we had pepper on ours. And both Ancient Greeks and Romans consumed cumin believing it would bleach their skin to a fairer complexion

There is far too much spice history to fit into even 100,000 pages, so it's a wonder that so little of it is common knowledge.  Perhaps, most of this information is often overlooked because of our universal need and the frequency of our use of spices.

Most likely though, we don’t think about spices much because they’re so accessible and affordable. During the 1500s Spain and Portugal were going to war over cloves whereas now they’re on your grocer’s shelf for a couple bucks. And today’s meager pricing of a commodity like pepper makes it hard to believe that it was once so valuable only the rich could afford it.

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