National Geographic : 1949 Mar
Spices, the Essence of Geography BY STUART E. JONES IGHT in weight but heavy with history these are the spices. To acquire them today is prosaic. The housewife trundles her wheeled basket through the aisles of her favorite market and selects a package of pepper from India, ginger from Jamaica, or cloves from Zanzibar as casually as she would a bag of flour from Minneapolis. A few centuries ago, these fragrant, palate tingling seeds, buds, leaves, roots, berries, and bits of bark lured men into perilous adven tures and helped to build empires. Nations and cities blossomed under their influence. Churches and palaces were built, the arts flourished, blood was shed in remote parts of the earth-largely because of spices. Columbus sought spices, among other things, but discovered the Western Hemi sphere instead. After him came Vasco da Gama and a long line of Portuguese, Dutch, and English adventurers whose quests for these precious auxiliary foods opened up the whole world for exploration and trade. Spices a Spur to Exploration Early search for spices was avid because in the days before refrigeration they helped preserve food. Also, they were used to make incense, embalming preparations, perfumes, and ointments long before bathtubs came into vogue. Our word "spice" comes from the French epice, which in turn stems from the Latin species, meaning "sort" or "kind." The fact that the French grocer still calls his shop an epicerie is not surprising, in view of Gallic reverence for good foods and the part spices play in their preparation. The word "grocer," too, can be traced to the spice trade. One of the earliest of the city guilds in medieval England was the Pep perers, first heard of in 1180. In 1345 this guild was succeeded by a group which later became the Grocers' Company. The term "grocer" was used to distinguish these men, who bought and sold in "gross" (large) quan tities, from those engaged in retail trade. Over the years since the early voyages of exploration the flow of spices from land of origin to market place increased, so that today, in normal times, they are cheap and plentiful. Virtually every country contributes some spices; more than half of America's sup plies normally come from the East Indies, the Malay Peninsula, China, French Indo china, and Japan. These countries furnish such staples as pepper, cassia or cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and turmeric. From Europe and Africa come about 25 percent, including caraway, coriander, cumin, poppy seed, ginger, laurel leaves, sage, and thyme. Other sources are the British West Indies, where nutmeg, mace, ginger, and all spice are grown, and India, which now sends us most of our pepper. Views of an Expert "Spice Taster" Very early in my spice assignment I became confused by the overlapping and complicated terminology of the spice trade. Exactly what are spices? How do they differ from herbs? I took these questions to Crosby Gaige, of New York City, who serves as adviser on flavor to the American Spice Trade Association. " 'Seasoning' is a comprehensive term ap plied to any ingredient that enhances the flavor of food," Mr. Gaige explained. "In my opinion, the word 'spice' or 'spices' should be limited to aromatic substances, mainly of tropical vegetable origin, that make dumb dishes eloquent. "I would list as spices proper: allspice, cassia, cassia buds, cinnamon, clove, ginger, mace, nutmeg, pepper, and perhaps turmeric. As a subdivision, we may name here deriva tives of the Capsicum family, the red peppers. These would include cayenne pepper, paprika, and chili pepper" (page 406). In addition to these true spices, Mr. Gaige continued, there is the category of aromatic seeds. These he listed as anise, cardamom, caraway, celery, cumin, coriander, dill, fennel, fenugreek, mustard, and poppy. "Under my classification," Mr. Gaige pointed out, "mustard is an aromatic seed, whereas in the spice trade it is generally called a spice. "And in a bracket by themselves I would put the various flavoring salts-onion, garlic, celery, and a combination generally known as 'seasoning salt,' which is an all-purpose mix ture of ground spices, herbs, salt, and hydro lyzed proteins." Mr. Gaige then turned to the enormous number of culinary herbs. He grows many in the garden of his Westchester County home. Among those in common use are bay leaves, basil, chervil, celery leaves, fennel leaves, horse-radish, oregano, parsley, the mints, mar joram, rosemary, sage, summer savory, winter savory, saffron, sassafras (the dried leaves are called file in Creole cooking), thyme, and tarragon.