Empire of the Senses, Spices, A Little History, Spices by Fabienne Gambrelle

Add cloves, galangal, coriander, sumac, cinnamon and any number of spices to a dish and it will give it another dimension (if the match is right).

I received a copy of Spices (Flammarion, September 2011) by Fabienne Gambrelle at the end of the summer. Under the cover you actually find 2 separate books, one dedicated to The History of Spices, the other to The Flavor of Spices.

Why did it take so long for me to share this wonderful introduction to the empire of the senses and spices? I needed to soak in its content, especially, the first part (history) which I will try to do justice today.

Fabienne Gambelle begins her introduction to The History of Spices with a trip back to 18th century:

"June 10, 1760: a gigantic fire lit up the Amsterdam skies. Four million florins' worth of spices went up in smoke, estimated Valmont de Bomare, a French naturalist who witnessed the blaze. Spectators waded through scented clouds, eyes streaming from the nutmeg and cloves that were burning up on the bonfire. Anyone who dared to snatch a few spices from the pyre, guarded by soldiers, would be put to death."

First chapter 'At the origins of a dream' opens in fantasy land:

"Whether bought from the King of Perfumes, the bearded snake who reigned over the Land of the Pount, or gathered in spice-rich Arabia from phoenix's nest made of frankincense, cinnamon or myrrh, or even harvested by the wind and transported to men over the rivers of the Garden of Delights, spices most assuredly come to us from a place that was imagined by the peoples of ancient times and the Middle Ages as quite fabulous"


Back in fact land, the author notes that "the first perfume ever written about is frankincense, also considered a spice. Frankincense was burned to diffuse the odor of gods in temples, and later to suggest divine presence in churches."

As for cures, "Arab medicine considered the malady of love an illness in itself, to be cured with spices that would extinguish or awaken desire, depending on the prescription of the doctor or magician".

Its cleansing power was another attribute "to avoid contagion and disinfect the chambers of the sick...The Chinese freshened their breath by chewing on cloves. The Egyptians were partial to the perfume of cardamon water, and the Romans were fond of cinnamon and saffron oils and balms. At Nero's banquets, spices were not only found in the guests' plates: they were also vaporized into the air using a sophisticated system hidden in the ceiling of the Golden House."

As for pepper, we learn that "the first author to describe pepper was Theophrastus, a disciple of Plato and then Aristotle, in the third century B.C.E. He knew it was a fruit, but had no idea where it came from" and "Pepper signaled luxury and refinement and was widely used in the sophisticated Roman cuisine advocated by Apicius, the first century Roman gastronome."

I never used 'asefatida' which the author says is also known as 'devil's dung' and on the sensory side "when added to food, it brings an enticing garlicky aroma."

Another chapter is dedicated to The Spice Wars from 16th to 18th centuries. Fabienne Gambrelle writes that after Europeans took over commercial routes from Arabs they fought wars with local tribes and kingdoms to take over plantations of spices they loved. They then fought amongst themselves for control (monopoly) for routes between the Malaccas (the Spice Islands) and Europe.

Huge profits were at stake as she states that "the value of a cargo-load of cloves could be multiplied by eight hundred."

Fortunes changed when "Spain invaded Portugal in 1580-81, the smaller kingdom lost its overseas posts to Most Catholic Spain, which soon ran into conflict with the ambitions of England and the Netherlands, both Protestant."

Then 'early in the seventeenth century, the Dutch took over the Sunda Islands, the Malaccas, the port of Malacca, and then the island of Ceylan."The French wanted a seat at the spice table and were served in that quest by the resilience and audacity of 'the aptly named Pierre Poivre'.

The last pages of The History of Spice document changes under way. While originally certain spices were limited to specific parts of the world, this started to change in late 19th and eraly 20th century. Author offers as an example cardammon in 1920's "introduced into Guatemala to replace coffee. According to United Nations statistics, Guatemalan cardamon production now exceeds that of India."

On this, I will stop my take on first half of Spices. I will hopefully sooner rather than later have time to cover 'The Flavor of Spices' section of the book. If you are looking for food related books as gift ideas besides cookbooks, 'Spices' is a perfect pick, a beautiful object too.

(* All quotes from Spices by Fabienne Gambrelle with Photographs by Sophie Boussahba, published by Flammarion, all rights reserved)

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