Food and Travel (UK)
The earliest references to cloves are found in ancient Chinese literature, where they were called the ‘bird’s tongue’ spice.
Spice historian Jill Norman notes that if you were privileged enough to address the Han emperor, you were required to have a few cloves in your mouth to keep your breath sweet. Historic Tic Tacs, you could say. Since then, their history has been one of mystery and adventure. Bought and sold by the Romans, by the second century AD their use had slowly spread along the Silk Road to almost every country in Europe. Their geographical origin, however, was a closely guarded secret until 1511 when the Portuguese, under Magellan, spotted the trees growing in the Maluku archipelago.
From then on, the Portuguese controlled the trade until driven out by the Dutch in 1605. The latter restricted the cultivation of clove trees to one island, but in 1770 the French succeeded in smuggling seedlings to Mauritius and Reunion. Intrigue at the court of Louis XV led to the sabotage of these trees but the single one that escaped destruction became the ancestor of virtually all the cloves used in the world today.
Plantations were subsequently established in Zanzibar and Madagascar, the largest global suppliers. In keeping with the centuries-old desire for a monopoly on the spice, Zanzibar made it a capital offence in 1972 to smuggle cloves out of the country.
The spice has always commanded a high price, and will likely continue to do so, as harvesting requires a tremendous amount of costly, expert and time-sensitive hand labour.