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.