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COLUMBIA, Mo. – The lingering aroma of spices can bring back warm and welcoming memories of the winter holidays.
“The holiday season simply would not be the same without certain traditional foods and beverages. Many of these foods are special because of the use of certain spices,” said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein.
Spices have had a profound influence on civilization, Trinklein said. Their demand in Europe before and during the Renaissance led to a lucrative spice trade. When spice routes faltered due to political turmoil, European explorers sailed west in search of a shorter route to the spice-laden Indies. Thus, the New World was discovered.
Probably the oldest and most sought-after spice in history is cinnamon, Trinklein said. Now a key ingredient in many holiday treats, cinnamon goes back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used it to embalm the dead, and it remains a common component of incense used in sacred ceremonies. Cinnamon was first widely used in food preparation in medieval Europe.
Cinnamon comes from the bark of several species of tropical evergreens native to Asia. After the outer bark is scraped off the harvested branches, the inner bark is removed in sections that tend to curl into sticks as they dry. Bark that does not curl properly is made into ground cinnamon.
Nutmeg is associated with eggnog, pumpkin pie and other holiday fare. It comes from the seed of a tropical evergreen tree native to Indonesia’s Molucca Archipelago, also known as the Spice Islands. In ancient times nutmeg was used as an amulet to protect against a wide variety of evils.
Both the Portuguese and the Dutch invaded the Moluccas and went to great lengths to maintain a monopoly on this precious spice. Efforts to prevent the export of living plants and viable seeds from the islands failed when, according to legend, nutmeg was smuggled to Mauritius, an island off the west coast of Africa. From there nutmeg was taken to the West Indies, where it now is produced commercially.
The same plant is also the source of another spice. While nutmeg comes from the egg-shaped seed, mace is derived from the seed’s dried, lacy covering. Most consider nutmeg the sweeter of the two, but mace is regarded to have a more delicate flavor.
Connecticut is said to be nicknamed “The Nutmeg State” because shrewd Yankee traders from Connecticut allegedly sold imitation nutmegs carved from wood.
The Moluccas are also the original source of clove, the dried flower bud of a tree in the myrtle family. The bud consists of a long calyx that ends with four sepals surrounding four rudimentary petals that form a ball. “‘Clove’ comes from the Latin ‘clavis,’ which means nail, and is descriptive of its shape,” Trinklein said. The bright red buds turn reddish-brown when dried.
Cloves and nutmeg were among 16th- and 17th-century Europe’s most precious commodities, worth more than their weight in gold. Magellan’s ill-fated trip around the world, which began in 1519 with 250 men in five ships and ended in 1522 with a single ship and just 18 men, was still considered a financial success because of the 50 tons of cloves and nutmeg brought back by the surviving ship.
“So, this holiday season, when the likes of eggnog, pumpkin pie and mulled cider are enjoyed, consider the spices that make them so flavorful, and the role those spices played in the discovery of the land we call home,” Trinklein said.