Stemming from herbaceous plants, reeds, lianas, trees or shrubs, spices naturally take up a daily place in our plates. Who, indeed, does not ever add a bit of pepper, nutmeg, paprika, coriander, saffron, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, curry, or even star anise, to bring a dish the ideal complement to ally tastes, smells, flavors, touch, and colors? So, depending on what one intends the spice, one shall use rather the rhizome, the bark, the fruit, the stone, the seed, the leaf, the flower or the button.
During the Antique, in Mesopotamia, the Assyrians and the Babylonians were already using spices for food, medicine, and perfumes. Egyptians as well were using spices, for funeral rites. The business of spices was then comparable, in term of importance, to the ones of gold or precious stones. Arabic traders are the first ones to bring back spices from China and India towards the West. From the 15th century, Portuguese sailors cross the Cape of Good Hope, and dash, for themselves, into this fruitful business. The Arabic then control the “spice route” in the East, Portuguese in the South. Along the 17th century, it has been the turn of the Dutch and English traders to start spice business, by creating companies and counters on Asian coasts. The French settle down in India in 1654, creating the (French) East India Company; The French also developed cultures of spices in their Colonies in the Caribbean Sea (Guadeloupe, Martinique) as well as in the Indian Ocean (Madagascar, La Reunion, Maurice Islands).
Talking about spices and learning about their origins is to tell about these fabulous journeys along the “spice route”, to get back to the discovery of the New World, and make reference to centuries of encounters between people and cultures. From a human stand-point, it goes from Sindbad the Sailor (9th century) to Vasco de Gama (1498), by way of Marco Polo (1204) and Christopher Columbus (1492). So many characters with fascinating stories gathering exploits all more incredible the ones than the others. The story of spices is also the advent of new businesses and inexpiable wars of monopoly.
But further to these centuries of ceaselessly activities, the interest that was granted to spices has become very modest, up to recently. Throughout time, indeed spices lost of their favor to become only commonplace ingredients of the art of cooking. Today, it is thus essential to return to fresh spices, reveal and relish their opulent and rich aromas. Spices offer an almost unlimited range of flavors that can enrich any gastronomic experience. It is fundamental to keep alive the “spice route” history and understand their importance in cooking. Best cuisines only come from the exchange and the mixture of people and cultures; through the fine combination of different tastes and flavors.