Words: Joanna Cummings
This feature was first published in October 2023 in My Mensa Weekly, our exclusive newsletter for Mensa members. Find out more about becoming a Mensa member here.
We explore the fascinating histories and far-flung provenances of five spices we tend to take for granted…
The spices and herbs we add to our dishes and drinks are part of our everyday lives; no homemade curry is complete without a pinch or two of turmeric, no hot toddy hits the spot without a touch of ginger. But in fact, various spices have played a significant role in history beyond the flavouring of our meals.
Many key spices – such as turmeric, ginger and cardamom – drove the development of international trade, and therefore were of economic significance. In the 15th century, when Venice had become the hub of the spice trade, some nations began looking for new routes to India to avoid high prices. This became one of the drivers for the discovery of the Americas by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus.
The use of spices was first documented way back in 1750 BC, and since then they have been used not only as flavourings, but also as part of religious rituals and for medicinal purposes – Hippocrates himself wrote extensively about the medicinal qualities of plants such as saffron and cinnamon. But each spice has its own story and purpose; here we delve a little deeper into the origins and usage of five of our favourite spices.
First used in ancient times in India and China, ginger had made its way to Europe by the 1st century, but it was another 10 centuries before it became a household name in England. Since then, we have taken ginger for everything from sore throats and digestive problems to morning sickness. Interestingly, it does not exist in its wild state but is the result of artificial selection, a plant known as a cultigen. Fun fact: Elizabeth I of England once offered her guests mini gingerbread versions of themselves as a post-meal palate cleanser!
Originating from the crocus flower, saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world; in fact, it is sometimes referred to as ‘red gold’. Why? Because of the intense methods required to harvest the flowers – it takes approximately 40 hours to pick enough for just one kilogram. Not only used as a distinctive flavouring for dishes, saffron also contains an intense yellow pigment, which has made it popular in the dyeing of textiles. It is believed that saffron originated in Iran, though Mesopotamia and Greece may also have claims to that crown.
Like the other spices on the list, cumin has been used for thousands of years, both in cuisine and for therapeutic reasons. Ideograms depicting Minoan palace stores show that it was particularly popular in ancient Crete, and the ancient Greeks even gave it its own container on their tables. Don’t let these Mediterranean tales mislead you though; it is grown in a variety of places all over the world, including Mexico, China and in the Indian subcontinent, where 70% of it is produced.
As you’ve probably guessed, the name of this fiery vegetable has very little to do with our equine friends – the English word ‘horse’ used to mean coarse, or strong, which certainly describes its flavour well. Cultivated since antiquity – and even earning a place on a Pompeii mural – it was used as a medicine during the Middle Ages and by Native Americans, who used its propensity for making people sweat as a tool to treat the common cold. As anyone who has ever handled horseradish will tell you, however, it is not recommended for the topical treatment of eye conditions…
It is hard to imagine that this humble spice could be part of historical intrigue, but it was in fact highly prized in the 17th century, leading the Dutch to wage (and win) a war against the Bandanese – the inhabitants of the Banda Islands, which are now part of Indonesia – to gain a monopoly on its production, before the British took over and transplanted the trees to other colonial areas. When harvested, the nutmeg fruit is sun-dried over several weeks, then the internal shell is smashed with a wooden truncheon – what a satisfying job! – and the nutmeg seeds removed. A word of warning, however – nutmeg can have hallucinogenic and psychoactive effects when consumed in large quantities…so go easy on the eggnog this winter.