A bit of spice

19th October 2021

It’s good to see chilli peppers back in some of our bags this week. They’ve got me thinking of all things spice. I’ve been rummaging through the jars and packets in my spice cupboard, from asafoetida to za’atar.

Some I use regularly: turmeric, cumin, coriander and cinnamon. The less frequently called upon occupy a space at the back of the cupboard. I had a jerk chicken phase a while back so there are several jars of allspice. And there’s nutmeg, a lot of nutmeg. Nutmeg is the spice I buy once a year and then completely forget I have some and buy more of it so the ‘Nutmeg of Christmas Past’ features strongly. I’ve found a retro-looking tub of oregano which went off in September 2013. A spice cupboard can be an aromatic repository of memories.

Spices are so readily available today in our supermarkets and local stores, it’s fascinating to think that they were so prized their trade was key to the emergence of the global economy. Trade in spices had taken place for some 5,000 years from India, spreading as far east as China and South-East Asia and North Africa and Arabia to the West. It was the desire to cut out the middlemen and directly source lucrative spices which was the catalyst for European exploration, starting with the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama’s voyage to India in 1498. Christopher Columbus' search for spice saw him heading west instead of east, inadvertently discovering the Americas. The history of spice is also the history of colonisation.

Colourful stories as vivid as the spices themselves have been told through history. Have you heard the story of the terrible cinnamalogus, the cinnamon bird? This fable, which emerged around 2,500 years ago among Arab traders, told how the fierce cinnamalogus made its nest from cinnamon sticks, and how the traders daringly obtained cinnamon by tempting the bird with meat. When it flew back to its nest the weight of the meat caused the nest to crumble and the spice could be collected. A tall tale, presumably told to ward off potential trading threats.

Fortunately it’s somewhat easier to get hold of spices these days! And there certainly appears to be a demand for it, with the global trade for spices having grown each year for the past quarter of a century. What spices do you use with your Lee Greens veg? We’d love to hear from you.

Kieran Mullens, Lee Greens newsletter editor