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.