The Charm of Spices

Pepper, ginger, cloves and cinnamon: spices today are common and familiar and are used in the preparation of food and herbal teas or, in the form of essential oils, to scent the air of our homes. Concentrations of aromas and essences, spices have always fascinated humanity for their perfume, for their ability to preserve food, and for the prestige and wealth of those who once traded them.

Since ancient times, spices have been used in sacred ceremonies, in the preparation and storage of food, and as medicines. There are reports of their use as early as the Neolithic period (8000-5000 BC). Their use in the mummification of the dead of the ancient Egyptians is widely documented, and later, the Greek and then Roman civilizations gradually began to use them more and more to flavor food and drink. In order to obtain spices, the Latin merchants went as far as the Red Sea and then even further east, until they opened trade routes to India (where archaeological evidence of Roman presence was found along the south-western coasts of the subcontinent). The Romans were famous for their abundant use of pepper; they built special deposits, called horrea pipearia to store these large quantities.

From Roman times up to the maritime dominion of the Serenissima Republic of Venice, spices from India arrived in Mediterranean ports through the Red Sea or Persian Gulf and from here they were shipped to other European markets. These routes were the "Spice Routes". The value of spices increased greatly between their lands of origin and the European markets because in order to reach these markets, they had to travel through different countries and pay duty fees. In fact by the time the spices reached their final destinations, at times the value of the spices inflated the original price by 400-500%. With the circumnavigation of Africa in 1497 by the Portuguese led by Vasco de Gama, new trade routes opened up with India and the spice routes diminished with time and with them the economic power of Venice. The importance of spices, however, did not diminish and wars were fought over them for the dominance of their rich trade. The use of spices as flavoring for food and drink shaped western cuisine from the Middle Ages until the early 1800s when tastes changed in the old continent due to the evolving interest in the "new spices": coffee, cocoa and sugar.

The aromatic components of the spices contribute to the olfactory and gustatory perceptions of the foods where they are present. We have spices that sweeten such as cinnamon, star anise, coriander, sesame and nutmeg, and spicy spices such as cloves, ginger, pepper and cardamom. Each spice is characterized by a chemical molecule that represents its aromatic imprint: the clove is rich in eugenol, cinnamon in cinnamic aldehyde , anise in anethole, and pepper in caryophyllene. It is these chemical components that come into contact with the olfactory and gustatory system, and are then processed in our brain and analyzed in conjunction with our sensory memories in the recognition phase. For this reason, spices are an important ingredient that we add to the recipes that we prepare in the kitchen to enhance their flavors, but they are also an indispensable aromatic component in the bouquet of numerous drinks and raw food materials in common use. For example, the hint of cloves is fundamental for the unmistakable aroma of Weizen beers and it enriches the bouquet of many barrel-aged wines and quality dark chocolates obtained from many varieties of Trinitarian or High Amazon cocoa. In fact, the eugenol molecule is characteristic of some beer yeasts, is contained in the oak wood used for wine aging barrels, and is present in some selected cocoa cultivars.

When spices are steam distilled, their relative essential oils are obtained which then become basic ingredients for the creation of aromas and perfumes; this use of spices goes back to ancient civilizations who widely used perfumed oils.

In contemporary perfumery, we can find many "luxury" perfumes that contain spices: Bulgari's Blue contains ginger, Cartier's Declaration contains cardamom, Paco Rabanne's Puor Homme includes cumin, YSL's Opium includes clove, Givenchy's Organza contains nutmeg, Chanel's Egoiste includes cinnamon, and Dior's Poison contains vanilla, to name a few.

The next time you are at a restaurant and order a dish and/or wine or when you catch a whiff of someone's perfume, try to pay attention and discern if you smell spices: you may be amazed by what you are able to detect!

Click here to discover TasterPlace AROMAS collections to train your sense of smell.


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