Economic Botany: A Textbook of Useful Plants and Plant Products

By Albert F. Hill | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XX
SPICES AND OTHER FLAVORING MATERIALS

The story of spices, condiments, and the other flavoring materials is one of the most romantic chapters in the history of vegetable products. From the earliest time spices have been as eagerly sought after as gold. The craving for spices has been one of the great factors in human progress, and has done much to change the course of history and geography and to promote international relations. The discovery of new lands and of shorter trade routes and the colonization of spice-producing countries have resulted, in part, from this interest in aromatic plants. The quest for spices created a furor comparable only to the Crusades, and was one of the dominant factors in European history during the Middle Ages and as late as the sixteenth century. The use and cultivation of spices, however, go back to the beginnings of history. They have played a prominent part in all the civilizations of antiquity, in ancient China and India, in Babylon and Egypt, and in Greece and Rome. The majority of spices originated in the Asiatic tropics and were among the first objects of commerce between the East and the West. The first traders were the Arabs, who brought the products of southern India and the Spice Islands by caravan to Arabia, and thence to Europe. Later other countries took over the spice trade. For many years Venice was the leader. In the sixteenth century the Portuguese assumed control and held a virtual monopoly for 200 years. They were supplanted by the Dutch, who were supreme for many years. Later the British Empire shared with Holland most of the spice trade of the world.

In the olden days spices were put to many uses. They not only served to season insipid foods and give zest to an otherwise monotonous diet, but acted as preservatives as well. Their aromatic qualities were useful in overcoming the odors of bad food and unwashed humanity. They were used in beverages, in medicine, and even in lieu of money. Sought after by rich and poor alike, and expensive because of the demand and the difficulty of obtaining them, they were the basis of many great fortunes made between A.D. 1300 and 1700.

The use of spices is not so widespread at the present time, but the United States still pays from $10,000,000 to $20,000,000 annually for crude spices, which are worth twice as much in the retail trade. The practice of importing the various aromatic substances in a crude state

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