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Herbs and Spices.


The real hey day of the herb garden dawned during the sixteenth century when intricate knot gardens were laid out in wealthy homes and contained herbs for culinary, medicinal and cosmetic use. At the same time herbs seeds and seedlings were taken from Europe to North America where extensive herb gardens were also established. Herbs were important to the American pioneers, with them they improved their food, dyed fabric for their clothing and made medicines.

And there the herb story tapered off until the present time. The nineteenth century showed a marked decline in the cultivation and use of herbs. Thyme, mint, sage and parsley were still used but in the main food was flavoured with spice and interest in herbs waned. Only in the last decade has international travel, a marked awareness of nutritional values and a leaning towards natural remedies sparked off our renewed appreciation of herbs.

Spices also have a long history and one full of violence, chicanery, derring-do and swashbuckle. Spice caused the discovery of new continents, wars, monopolies and the rise and fall of empires.

The origin of spices is long lost, their use is of great antiquity and while we have no exact dates historians tell us that the early trades in spices came from India, through Afganistan and Iran, then to the Middle East and the Mediterranean ports, eventually to reach Europe. All this by camel caravan which had to cross tortuous terrain, survive the elements and at the same time be defended against the constant attack of bandits. Small wonder that spices were in short supply or that they fetched fantastic prices.

The shortage of spices was maintained artificially. Long before the great seafarers opened up the spice routes the Arabs, who controlled the spice trade, protected the source of their valuable cargoes telling that they came from Africa and weaving weird and terrifying tales of monsters and demons who guarded the spices. Their exaggerated tales successfully quashed any competition and for several hundred years they held a monopoly over the spices which they were able to buy cheaply in Eastern ports and sell, so dearly, on the Mediterranean.

The monopoly was broken, for a time, by the Romans when they discovered the secret of the monsoon winds and were able to sail the Arab routes. Spice prices fell and Rome over-indulged in the luxuries of spiced wines and foods, and the once costly spices were strewn around to sweeten the air. Short lived pleasures for Rome soon fell to the Goths and the spice trade fell back into Arab hands, where it remained for the next four hundred years.

Under the leadership of Muhammed, also a spice trader, Islam flourished and by the middle of the eighth century the Muslim empire had taken over the spice trade completely and most of the spice-growing areas as well. Once again the price of spice soared. In the West it cost a small fortune to buy cloves and mace. Pepper was so expensive it was sold by the individual peppercorn. Moreover, peppercorns were used as currency in England and white slaves were traded for cinnamon, pepper, and cloves.

Such exorbitant prices attracted the attention of scoundrel entrepreneurs who adulterated the spices and reaped fortunes from the sale of the stretched goods, a practice which only declined once it had been declared punishable by death. Altogether a sorry state of affairs. People needed spices, the food of the day was coarse, unpalatable and often tainted. Spice added flavour and helped to preserve food.

In the thirteenth century when Marco Polo described the abundance of spices he had seen in the Orient, people began to look at the possibilities of bypassing the Muslim traders but they needed to find a route across uncharted seas which would circle the land obstacles. Sailing was treacherous in those days, nevertheless many navigators braved the oceans to find the long sought routes and the wealth of the spices. The Spanish and Portuguese were in the forefront of the Vasco da Gama and Magellan. They widened the boundaries of the world and discovered new continents for settlement and exploration. They also found the spices.

The story really does not end there, as there was to be more fighting, oppression and created monopolies before the spice plants were liberated from those few precious sources. Today there is scarcely a country which does not cultivate some of its own spices.