HarperCollins, £25/£22 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Spice, by Jack Turner
Exotic voyages that changed the world
Tuesday 24 August 2004
Strange to think that the half-forgotten items at the back of the kitchen cupboard changed the world. The voyages of discovery undertaken by Columbus and Magellan were primarily intended to locate supplies of the stuff we now grind over steaks or grate on rice puds. In 1498, when Vasco de Gama's exploratory flotilla reached the Malabar coast of India, a lowly emissary was dispatched to explain their mission: "We came in search of Christians and spices." The pepper from the Ghat mountains near Malabar is still regarded as the best in the world.
Jack Turner's epic and evocative account explores why spices had such profound significance in the Western world. He sensibly points out that the common explanation for the importance of spices is so much twaddle: "Anyone willing to believe that medieval Europe lived on a diet of spiced and rancid meat has never tried to cover the taste of advanced decomposition with spices." A much more likely explanation is that spices helped to enliven meat preserved by salting, and brought variety to the Lenten fast. Spices also helped make oxidised wine - a constant problem before the development of corks and bottles in the 16th century - reasonably palatable.
Spices made their tortuous way to Western Europe long before the oceanic routes to the East were initiated. Pepper crops up in 394 of Apicius's 468 recipes. It appears in a textbook for Roman schoolboys, where a talking pig called M Grunnius ("Grunter") Corocotta "obligingly asks to be well cooked with pepper, nuts and honey". The appetite for spices outlived the Roman period. When dying in 735, the Venerable Bede distributed his pepper among ecclesiastical colleagues.
Considering the obscure origins of some spices - the clove and nutmeg only grew on tiny volcanic specks in the Moluccas - it is scarcely surprising they were thought to be of divine origin. Their fragrance and preservative powers only added to their mystique. An Egyptian mummy dating from 1224BC was found to have Indian peppercorns stuffed in its nostrils.
Turner notes that the frequent appearance of spices in early-medieval medical texts is "nothing less than astonishing". For the most part, these were of dubious value. When the maritime trade in spices began, they may have been even more deleterious to health. Spice ships enabled the spread of the black rat and its plague-carrying fleas.
Shuffling chronology, Turner explores the role of spice for body and spirit through aphrodisiacs and incense. Some areas of his "long ramble through the past" are more interesting than others, and there are some strange omissions. Why doesn't asafoetida, brought to Europe by Alexander the Great and mentioned in half the recipes of Apicius, get into the book? And where is sumac, utilised as a souring agent before the introduction of lemons? Surely, extravagant saffron deserves more than a handful of fleeting references. But these are quibbles in a book as readable as it is exotic.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Why this father didn’t hide his daughter’s heroin overdose in her obituary
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
- 5 The most powerful passports in the world
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
Oldest footage of London landmarks released
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove