Cloves

Taste & Travel - - Contents - bySUSAN HAL­LETT

SU­SAN HAL­LETT pro­files a per­fumed spice.

SPICES, SUCH as cloves and pep­per, were prized by princes, priests and pi­rates. It is thought that the clove tree orig­i­nated in China but it was first cul­ti­vated by the Dutch in the Moluc­cas, known to Euro­peans as the Spice Is­lands. The tall ev­er­green trees grow well in var­i­ous trop­i­cal cli­mates and are to be found in such in­ter­est­ing places as Zanz­ibar, which once sup­plied the bulk of the world’s cloves, as well as in Tan­za­nia.

The fruit of the pyra­mi­dal tree bear­ing these fra­grant flower buds was not fa­mil­iar to most Euro­peans un­til a sea route to the East was dis­cov­ered by the Por­tuguese at the close of the fif­teenth cen­tury. The Chi­nese were fa­mil­iar with cloves as early as the third cen­tury BCE and the spice was an im­por­tant trade item for hun­dreds of years. The an­cient Ro­mans also made use of the spicy fra­grance and warm aro­matic taste of cloves in their cui­sine, as did the English. One dish, called mau­menye ryalle, ac­cord­ing to The Hori­zon Cook­book was prob­a­bly in­spired by the Cru­saders and is said to have been en­joyed in Bri­tain. It was a stew “of strong wine, cin­na­mon, soft pine cones, cloves, al­monds, ale and pulped hog’s brawn.” Saf­fron, gin­ger, salt and more sweet wine com­pleted this elab­o­rate dish.

Pep­per and cloves had been as rare as gold dust and were just as valu­able in Europe dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages. Dur­ing the 16th and 17th cen­turies wars were fought over footholds in Asia for a share of the wealth held by spice

traders from the Ori­ent. At that time spices were so pre­cious that they were used spar­ingly, even at the ta­bles of Euro­pean royalty. The cloves that most Euro­peans knew be­fore the Por­tuguese voy­ages of dis­cov­ery were nearly all from Zanz­ibar, off the coast of East Africa.

Great spice guild houses, such as the one in Lubeck, Ger­many, were es­tab­lished in Europe as early as 1180. Spice traders in Lon­don, Eng­land were grouped with other guilds and were part of the Wor­ship­ful Com­pany of Gro­cers. Their

re­built guild house is on Princess Street in Lon­don. The guild hall I lunched in, Zun­fthaus zur Saf­fran in Zurich, is ru­moured to have opened in 1303. It was re­built be­tween 1719 and 1723. I will al­ways re­mem­ber the de­li­cious lunch, served on the first floor where the spices were stored.

The small pur­ple flower clus­ters of the clove tree, picked in the bud stage, then dried in the sun, brought great wealth to the traders. The Por­tuguese and later the Dutch held the clove trade in mo­nop­oly un­til about 1770, when the French es­tab­lished clove trees on some of their is­land colonies, such as Réu­nion and Mau­ri­tius.

Ac­cord­ing to Joy of Cook­ing, “This spicy, dried rich red, un­opened bud of the clove tree con­tains so much oil that you can squeeze it out with a finger­nail.” Be­cause its flavour is so strong, the heads of cloves are of­ten re­moved so the sea­son­ing will be milder. There is also the much stronger oil of cloves, used in light-coloured dishes.

Ac­cord­ing to some home­o­pathic doc­tors, cloves are use­ful to treat di­ar­rhea, her­nia and bad breath as well as vom­it­ing. If ap­plied to the gums, a clove will ease toothaches. Oil of cloves should be used with dis­cre­tion as it is very strong. It should not be used by those tak­ing an­ti­co­ag­u­lant or an­tiplatelet drugs.

The clove tree can reach 40 feet in height. It is sym­met­ri­cally pyra­mi­dal, a mem­ber of the Myr­taceae fam­ily, species Eu­ge­nia aro­mat­ica… now of­ten classed as Syzgium aro­maticum. Cloves, called clou de girofle in French, have a four-sided stem and a ca­lyx with four sepals. The tiny is­land of Zanz­ibar once sup­plied the bulk of the world de­mand, but clove trees are now cul­ti­vated in many places, in­clud­ing the West Indies, many In­done­sian is­lands and coun­tries such as Pak­istan, Bangladesh, In­dia, Sri Lanka, Tan­za­nia and Mada­gas­car.

It took many voy­ages east­ward to find a route that al­lowed west­ern Euro­peans to start buy­ing from the ac­tual sources rather than from Arab and Ot­toman traders. This made such spices less ex­pen­sive.

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