Monday, 7 April 2014

Spice - The History of a Temptation by Jack Turner

This has been a slow, quiet day and I did not feel like doing anything more than read. After lunch (sushi) and being a sunny day I ventured outside to finish off Spices, with a cup of coffee and a wafer. Turned out to be rather windy though, so had to go inside after finishing the coffee. Well, the sofa in the living room, on which the sun was shining seemed like a good alternative.

I have read this book for quite some time. All in all it is an interesting book. The beginning was really exciting when Turner tells us about the quest for spices and the search for India where the spices were supposed to grow. We follow Columbus' several trips to America. He could not be convinced that he had not found India, in spite of the fact that they did not find any spices. They did find chillies which later on became a very popular spice. Vasco da Gamas' route in 1497-99 where they came to Calicut in India and what seems to have been the most dangerous and terrible trip of them all; Magellan's search via the route south of the Americas in 1519-1522. They were all after pepper, nutmeg, ginger, mace, cloves, mace and cinnamon which became, once they found them, an exclusive, priceless commodity.


The book is divided in four parts; The Spice Race, Palate, Body and Spirit. We hear the story of how we used spices in the old days. For remedies of the body, for spicing meat and fish which took away the bad smell since meat and fish were not always fresh, as an aphrodisiac, in religion and so on. Even before the great circumnavigations spices were known and used as far back as the old Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans. It is all very scientific, interesting but a lot of references and quotes that sometimes are quite alike. I think he must have included everything there has been written about spices through the ages in this book. Here I could say "less is more" and the book would have been more easy to get through if there had been less quotes and references.  However, it is a well written history of spices until the Middle Ages. After that spices became more available and less a rare commodity, prices also went down which made it accessible for more people.

Today spices is once again something important, mostly for cooking. We are travelling around the world, we taste other cuisine, we have a variety of restaurants from all over the world around us every day. You realise, when reading this book, which luxury it is to just go down to your super market to buy you spices. As a sample how spices trickles into our life without us thinking more of it Turner mentions the perfume industry; Calvin Klein's Obsession contains nutmeg and clove; Opium by Yves Saint-Laurent has pepper, and there are many other such examples. Ginger, mace and cardamom are all common additives. If we are to take the advertising at face value, then spices remain as seductive as they ever were, even if we are less conscious of the fact.

In New York City there is a spice store called Aphrodisia and we all remember Spice Girls. It all goes back to the old notions that spices were good for seduction. Turner finishes with the following story of one of our biggest commodities today; Coca-Cola!

Spices may even lie at the heart of modern capitalism's most closely guarded secret. Mark Pendergrast concludes his history of Coca-Cola with a leaked copy of the formula of the world's most popular and symbolic soft drink, which is, it would seem, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. Earlier leaks of the formula, while differing among themselves, suggest the same. If Pendergrast's source can be trusted, then it would seem that spices remain as much the favour of the age as they have ever been, albeit in disguise, hidden away in the basement of Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta. Is Pendergrast right? It would, one feels, be wholly appropriate.

I cannot but agree. What would we do without spices today?

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