A Song of Fire and Spice

“Please pass the pepper.”  It’s a common request we might hear anytime we sit down for a meal.  As with most of the everyday items we find in our spice cabinet, most of us take their aquisition and use for granted. However, the next time you add a dash of cinnamon to your muffin mix, sprinkle nutmeg over your holiday eggnog, or indulge in a scoop of vanilla ice cream, pause to consider that that it was a taste for these unprepossessing spices that was largely responsible for the exploration of our planet.

The lure of spices began with the dawn of history and would extend to the ends of the earth. It was the quest for spices that first enticed Greek sailors into the Indian Ocean, Indian merchants to the desserts of Africa, and Arab entrepreneurs to the remotest reaches of the Orient.  It was the desire for spices that pushed European naval powers beyond their nearest shores. In fact, just about every maritime pioneer from Alexander the Great to Napoleon had a nose for these pungent substances.  But what was it that made this collection of twigs and berries such a dynamic catalyst for world exploration?

Though we don’t think much of them now, at one time spices were considered an enviable and exotic opulence, the equivilant of “old-school bling.” The use of these pungent and piquant flavors not only enhanced the commonplace, but even impressed honored guests, excited the envy of the neighbors, and advertised the extravagance of the user. As long as the origin of these rare spices remained a mystery, they maintained their status as a luxury items, and their prices remained dear. Those merchants and middlemen who made small fortunes from transporting of these spices overland, fiercly guarded the secret source of their wares. It soon became obvious to those with a nose for enterprise that anyone who could bypass these middlemen and find a direct route to the fabled “Spice Islands” would become very rich indeed.

It was thanks to the challenge of sourcing and redirecting these exotic commodities, that mankind learned to overcome his fear of the world’s briny wastes, to master their navigation, and to discover their remotest shores. English and Dutch navigators braved the ice packs of the Arctic in their search of a northern passage that would lead to the sun-drenched climes of the spice islands. Francis Drake, Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and other Renaissance pioneers of the great age of sail left their home shores not on a quest for gold, but in search of the origin of these jewels of the vegetable kingdom. The discovery of the Americas, of a sea-route round Africa and of that missing link in the world’s circumference that was the Pacific were all incidental to this quest for piquant and pungent spices.

The promise of fortunes that could be made by finding a maritime spice route aroused endeavor and excited invention. The spice race would, by extension, push developments in nautical design, navigational science and ballistics that eventually gave the maritime powers of Western Europe superiority over other nations and would lead on to dominion and empire.

And so begins the story of the race to find the mythical spice islands and  the quest for monopoly over a prize worth it’s weight in

gold.  Sovereigns pledged their prestige, ship crews risked their lives, wars were waged, states toppled, and thousands of lives squandered, not in the quest territory, gold, or the thirst for power but in order to redirect the distribution for the common items that today sit unnoticed and ignored in our spice racks.


Spices derive their name from the Latin word species, meaning special, specification, species and well as spice. In the Middle Ages this title was applied to any group of exotic foodstuffs imported from tropical, equatorial countries into the more temperate countries in the northern hemisphere. Though we now think of spices as only those items found in cooking or condiments, this wasn’t always the case. Historically spices also included those exotica used in medicines, ointments, cosmetics, air-fresheners, dyes, fumigants and aphrodisiacs.


Not all spices are “spicy.” Only a few of the many dozens of different spices like peppers, chili, horseradish, mustard, or gingers would be considered “hot.” Even those of us who “don’t care for spicy food” aren’t likely to reject vanilla ice cream, sesame rolls or cinnamon buns on the basis that they are too piquant. Indeed, the historical usage of the word spice could include such items as chocolate, coffee, tea, wine and olive oil, since these delicacies were imported from equatorial regions.


The difference between herbs and spices has nothing to do with provenance and everything to do with substance. Generally, herbs are green and leafy, while spices are dried and leafless. Spices can come from several different parts of a plant, such the bud (cloves), bark (cinnamon), berry (peppercorns), root (ginger), seed (cumin) and even the stigma of a flower (saffron.) Since spices do not have to be used in their fresh form, they easily lend themselves to trade.  Whether crossing the deserts in a camel caravan or setting to sea in the hull of a 3-masteed schooner, even the earliest spice traders could easily pack, store and transport their goods knowing their fiery treasure would likely survive the long arduous journey to reach the markets in the north.


Since the earliest times, spices were used as ceremonial perfumes and incenses, which were deemed satisfactory to appease the gods. Although initially reserved for worshiping the divine, mighty Pharaohs and Caesars eventually indulged in spices as well. The list of those deemed worthy to partake in the prestige of the piquant slowly percolated down through society; from generals and senators to priestesses, consorts, concubines, or anyone aspiring to be worthy of consideration. Finally, spices would be diverted to more utilitarian use, and today can be found in such common items as toiletries, love-potions, laxatives, fumigants, air-fresheners, food additives and potpourri.


“Spicing up your lovelife” used to be a more literal phrase. For those that could afford them, the heady aromas of intriguing incenses and luxurious perfumes made with spices offered a stimulating environment for romantic encounters, and spices were often included in potions for sexual potency. Old Testament verses extolled the sensory excitement offered by cinnamon, myrrh, and saffron. In ancient Greece and Rome, spices earned such a reputation of being essential every-night aphrodisiacs, that the word “cinnamon” was equivalent to the current use of “sweetheart” or “darling”.


Spices have been used therapeutically for centuries by various civilizations. Ancient Egyptian priests, physicians used a significant number of spices in religious ceremonies and in embalming preparations. The Old Testament recognized the role of apothecaries in compounding ointments, including the holy anointing ointment was used to anoint Jesus. In ancient Greece and Rome where poison was often used to eliminate enemies, spices were included in the antidotes against poisons and venoms due to their life-restoring virtues.

In medieval Europe, spices fitted into philosophic concepts of improving health, since it was understood that they could affect and influence the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.) Folk remedies prescribed spicy beverages and tonics as valued panaceas for a great number of different disorders, varying from cold preventatives, bronchitis therapies and halitosis treatment.

During the great plague in Europe in the 15th century, a small band of Spice Traders turned thieves were caught robbing the dead and dying bubonic plague victims. Although at high levels of exposure to this highly contagious disease, not one member of this morbid band of Spice Traders ever contracted “the Black Death.”  The main ingredient of the spicy concoction the thieves had  rubbed over their bodies to protect themselves was nutmeg.  When word got out that nutmeg could ward off this deadly disease, the demand for the wrinkly little nut reached new heights.


A few culinary mythologies about spices have developed over the years. One untrue, yet commonly held belief is that spices were once essential in the preservation of butchered meat. Although some spices do have antibacterial properties, they are not preservatives on their own. In a time before refrigeration, meats had to be preserved and stored for the winter months. Dehydration, salting or immersion of foods in liquids like brines, oils, or vinegars, would leave very strong residual tastes, and the addition of spices would have merely made the disagreeable methods more appetizing.

Another misconception is that spices were used in the old days to mask the taste of rotten food.  Putrid provisions will make even the hardiest of stomachs very ill, and no amount of spice can make molding meat fit for consumption. In fact, far from disguising the taste, the addition of spices might have even enhanced and exaggerated the festering flavor.  Surely, if any of our ancestors were in such dire circumstances that all they could eat was moldering meals, they would certainly not have been able to afford spices, which were worth their weight in gold and largely reserved for the elite.


The flow of spices along trade routes provided opportunities for taxes to be imposed at major trading cities by Arabians, Egyptians, Turks and Venetians. By the time spices reached European markets, prices increased up to a thousand-fold. At one time a pound of mace would buy three sheep, cloves cost the equivalent of $20 a pound, and pepper was so valuable that it was counted out by each peppercorn.  In medieval times many towns kept their accounts in pepper, which was an  acceptable substitute for money; thus, taxmen, landlords  and even conquerers would often be paid in spices.

Increasing custom duties in the 15th century resulted in a 30-fold rise in the price of Indian pepper, at a time when the social desire for pepper and other exotic spices was maximal. Severe punishments were handed down to those that were caught pilfering, and the guards at the European docks even had to have their pockets sewn up to make sure that no spices were pocketed.


As long as spices remained rare and dear, their use conferred distinction, prestige, and a superior refinement amongst the elite. Exotic imports obtained from Asia were particularly appealing to ancient Greeks and Romans, who spent vast fortunes on trade with Arabia, which was the center of the spice trade. Rare spices were utilized in cooking as a sign of wealth in Rome, and later in Medieval and Renaissance times, where the privileged developed an exaggerated taste for spicy foods.

Local and inexpensive herbs and flavors, such as garlic, onion and horseradish, sufficed for the poorer people of old Europe, but influential, rich hosts would wish to impress or politically intimidate their guests with the extravagant use of mysterious and exotic ingredients. These pricy imports could be added in large amounts and in complex mixtures to a sumptuous banquet to provide a gustatory statement about the wealth, power and political initiative of the grandstanding host.


And so the stage is set to tell the fascinating, and bloody story of the spice trade, and the quest to find those mysterious lands of their origins “the Spice Islands.” This quest for spices that were worth their weight in gold would incite man to first acquire a comprehensive understanding of the geography of his planet, but he would soon develop a taste for mastery over it. Along with the incredible maratime discoveries and naval developments that would be made in this time, the history of the spice quest would have a dark side. Atrocities were committed, wars fitfully fought, states toppled, people uprooted, hundreds of ships lost, and  thousands of lives squandered in the quest for monopoly over these desecrated barks, shriveled berries, knobby roots, dead buds, crumpled membranes, sticky gums, and old fruit stones.

Sea Trek Sailing Adventures offers anual trips to remote and historically rich Mollucas, or “Spice Islands.”

Each year Sea Trek offers several itineraries that include visits to the Banda Islands (home to Nutmeg and Mace) and the islands of Ternate and Tidore (home of the clove) in the Indonesian Archipelago.

Please visit Sea Trek’s website for more information and to view all departure dates for cruises to the “Spice Islands.”


Special thanks to my sources:

“The Spice Route” by John Keay

“Spice Islands” by Ian Burnett

“Spice Notes and Recipies”  Ian “Herbie” Hempill

“Indonesian Banda” by Willard A. Hanna

Stay tuned for more stories from the land of fire and spice.