A Spicy History

A Brief history of Herbs, Spices and Seasonings

BY STEPHAN DE JONGHE – SALES MANAGER 4th July 2019

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Culpepers are an herb and spice packing company that was founded in 1971. We’re located in Balcatta and are a proud Western Australian Company. We’re named after Nicholas Culpeper. Nicholas was a doctor and herbalist in 17th century England. He was so into his herbs and spices that he wrote a book that upset other physicians and doctors of the day because it showed people how to eat healthy. When they were sick he showed them how to cure themselves. This was bad for the medical business.  Fortunately for Nicholas not too many people could read, otherwise he’d have been in big trouble with the other doctors.

The history of herbs and spices is very lengthy. Herb and spice plants have been around for millions of years. It is important to note; that not all Herbs and Spices are culinary. Many are medicinal. Some are both. To make life easier for all of us, I’ll only talk about culinary herbs and spices, a bit about their history and some fun things about them.

 

Herbs, Spices and Seasonings

Now, it is important to understand the difference between herbs, spices and seasonings. The easiest way to remember is that an herb comes from the leaf. The spice comes the other parts of the plant such as the roots, the bark, the flowers, the seeds or the fruit or the vegetable. Seasonings are a blend of herbs, spices and salts and are designed to add intense flavour to food. Common seasonings include lemon pepper, Moroccan and Taco seasoning.  Prepared seasonings have the advantage over home grown seasonings because of their consistency.

Sometimes an herb and a spice can come from the same plant. A good example is Fenugreek. The plant Fabaceae produces the leaf which is used as an herb. Fenugreek leaves are also known as Methi leaves. The seeds are ground into the spice. It is a popular herb and spice and is used frequently in Indian Cuisine.

Popular examples of herbs are parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage.
Popular examples of spices are nutmeg, pepper, coriander, cinnamon and cloves.
Other examples of seasonings include Baharat, paella, za’atar and chilli con carne.

 

Blends

There are also many blends. Blends are where we combine two or more herbs or spices and give it a different fancy name. They’re not a seasoning as they don’t include salt. Popular examples of blends are curry powder, mixed spice, mixed herbs, five spice and peppercorn medley. The term "mixed spice' was first used for a blend of spices in cookery-books as long ago as 1828. It has cinnamon as the dominant flavour, then nutmeg and allspice. Allspice is ground pimento and it is the fruit berry of the plant.
 
Sumac is a burgundy coloured spice that comes from the fruit, which is dried and ground into a powder.
Turmeric and ginger come from a tuber root. The dried roots are ground into a powder.
Coriander comes from seeds.
Cloves are from the bud of the flower.
Pepper is a type of berry.
Cinnamon and cassia is ground dried bark.

 

Spicy

Spicy is an interesting term. Broadly, it should be used to mean that spices have been added to the food. For many people it means that it is hot! Again “Hot” becomes confusing because spicy “Hot” and temperature “Hot” are unrelated except when heat is applied to a hot spice.

 

The earliest recorded use of herbs and spices is about 7000 years ago in what is now Germany, Denmark and in Spain. They have all documented the use of mustard and garlic. Charred fenugreek seeds have been recovered from Tell Halal in Iraq, which were carbon dated to be 6000 years old. Thousands of years ago aniseed was used to make a small liquorice flavoured cake which was given as a thank you to guests attending a wedding. A tradition that still exists today.

 

Garlic

Garlic is not a spice but a bulb, and like onions, garlic belongs in a category all of its own. It is the most popular flavouring in the world.
Garlic has amazing antibacterial properties and can ward off diseases. In the First World War, the army doctors reportedly used it to prevent gangrene and would apply it directly onto the wound. French doctors even wore garlands of garlic on the battlefield and as a result they were less likely to contract diseases from their patients.
It is claimed that eating garlic can help prevent heart disease.
It is also claimed that eating garlic can help dissuade romance.

Paprika is from a vegetable but when it is dried and ground it is a spice. That’s because in its natural state it is a capsicum. Confusing isn’t it. Even more so when you learn that in the USA they call capsicums - bell peppers. Bell peppers are a name given to Capsicums by Marco Polo an Italian explorer and trader. Chilli peppers and Capsicums are related. Chilli is hot but Capsicums are neutral. Therefore to make hot paprika just add some ground chilli powder!  Paprika is interesting. The brighter the red, the milder (or sweeter) the flavour. Brown paprika adds flavour to the food. The bright red adds colour to the food. Tomato powders will do the same thing but you’ll be left with a tomato flavour. With bright red paprika you get the colour but retain the flavour of the original dish.
 
Rosemary used to be worn by brides as a symbol of the bride’s purity. It was once called "The Rose of Mary" in honour of the holy Virgin Mary. It was also given as gifts to wedding guests. Today that tradition has been replaced with a bouquet of flowers. More than 2300 years ago chives were given to Alexander the Great as a wedding gift. It was believed that Chives was an aphrodisiac.

 

Chili or Chilli

High temperature applied to “Hot” spices will amplify the intensity of the mouth feel. Try eating heated whole chillies! Chilli Peppers originated in the Central Americas. The Na-huatl (Better known as Aztecs) were the first recorded users of chillies. Their language the "Na-huatl" coined the word Chilli that is the common Spanish and subsequently English name used today. Other "Nahuatl" words that made it into English language include avocado, chocolate, coyote and tomato. In Spanish it's C-H-I-L-I.  In Na-huatl is C H-I-L-L-I. In English it either! Chilli is grown and used around the world. Eating Chillies is an acquired taste. The Scoville Scale is the measurement of the pungency or spice heat of the Chilli Pepper. It is recorded in Scoville Heat Units as a function of Capsaicin Concentration. The Scale is named after its creator, Wilbur Scoville an American pharmacist. Wilbur devised the method in 1912 and it is known as the Scoville Organoleptic Test!

 

Pepper

Another hot spice is pepper. Pepper is unrelated to chilli. Ancient roman traders thought that peppercorns were the seeds of the Chilli Peppers and so they gave them a similar name. The name stuck and is in common use today. Pepper, white, black and green all come from the same vine. The two main growing regions are India and Vietnam.  The berries are divided in to three piles according to demand. On the first pile, the peppercorns are placed on drying mats in the sun. After 7 days they are gathered up and sold as black peppercorns. The second pile is soaked in a brine solution for 7 days. The salty water bleaches the peppercorns. These are then washed to remove the salt and sun dried. They are sold as white peppercorns. The smaller pile is soaked in sulphur dioxide. SO2 is a food grade preservative.
After drying they are sold as green peppercorns. Today, pepper accounts for 20% of the world’s trade in spices.

Sage has been used since ancient times to ward off evil spirits, and as a treatment for snakebites. It was also used to increase a woman's fertility. In ancient times a marjoram "Wreath" was worn by Greeks and Romans to symbolise true love, honour and happiness. Now we use it to flavour our food! Oregano is related to the herb Marjoram. Oregano is also known by some people as "Wild Marjoram." Oddly both are from the same genus as mint.

In the late 7th Century nutmeg was introduced into European Diets. It is one of the essential ingredients in Haggis.  It was very expensive as the Arab traders were very careful to guard the location of the Nutmeg trees so as to keep the price high. Nutmeg comes from Indonesia. During the great plague of the late 1600’s, it was believed that Nutmeg could prevent infection and the price skyrocketed. Indonesia was once known as the “Spice islands.”

Saffron has been used in the Middle East for many thousands of years but only started being used in Western Europe in the 11th Century. It takes about 140,000 hand-picked Saffron flowers to produce one kilo. A small amount of saffron goes a long way. Saffron added directly to the meal won’t disperse evenly. Grind the strands in a small dish, add hot water and then add to the food.

Allspice was once thought to be a blend. English Merchants in 1621 thought it to be a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. However allspice is actually ground pimento seeds and not a blend at all. The name stuck and we still use it today.

Mint was known in Greek Mythology as the "Herb of Hospitality" and in Europe one of its first known uses was as a room deodoriser as it was liberally scattered across the floor. Vanilla Pods were first used in the 14th Century by the Central Eastern American Indians. According to To-tonac mythology, the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest to be with her man. Sadly, the lovers were captured and beheaded. When their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical vanilla orchid grew.
To grow vanilla pods commercially, each flower must be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of opening. Bees simply can’t do the job quickly enough!

 

The Spice Trade

During the 16th and 17th Century the formation of trading companies started in Europe and England. These cooperatives sent ships across the globe looking to buy Spices and bring them back to sell to European Customers at huge profits. The most significant spice was cloves which were at that time, the most valuable trading commodity in the world. The most famous and dominant trading company was the Dutch East India Company. It was known in Holland as the VOC. The Dutch royal family had a stake in the company so the merchants that worked for the VOC had a lot of power. They had many ships sailing to and from European ports to India, South East Asia and Indonesia. They owned plantations, colonised massive areas of land which were managed by European overseers. They also had powers to wage war, to imprison, bring to trial and even execute people convicted of crimes against the government, the crown or the VOC. They could even could negotiate treaties, establish colonies and used their own currency. They also had their own ship building yards in Amsterdam.

All of this was to manage the spice plantations cultivating the herbs and spices for European markets. The VOC was the first company to issue shares. Shares that could be traded after the ships set sail. Mostly, investors would by a share based on the cost of the expedition. If they waited for the ships, laden with herbs and spices to return they would get their money back plus a share of the massive profits after the stock was sold. However, if they wanted their money earlier (as sometimes they’d have to wait up to a year) they could sell their share at whatever price another investor thought they might be worth.
 
That was the start of share trading that dominates the investor market today. For the first time Investors were called shareholders and the perceived value of stock was sold based on the ships successful return. This became known for the first time ever as the “Stock market.” The profits were known as a “dividend” as the profits were divided according to how many shares you had.
The capital of the VOC Empire was located in Jaya-kar-ta, which the Dutch changed the name to Batavia. The Batavia is better known as the Dutch merchant ship that was wrecked in storms off the islands of Geraldton on the WA coast.  The City “Batavia” was later renamed Jakarta which is the capital of Indonesia.

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Herbs and spices were at the very beginning of modern investing and the terminology used during that time, is still very much in use today. The long version of the History of Herbs and Spice is very long so I hope that you have enjoyed reading this condensed version. If you know of something that is interesting and should be added, please let me know at enquiries@culpepers.net.au

Best wishes.
Stephan – Sales Manager at Culpepers

 

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