For centuries, spices were extremely valuable items that drove global commerce and determined the fate of millions. Now they sit on our shelves, largely anonymous, for months or even years. How did spices fall so far? And what can we do to restore the pride they once had?
In many ways spices are the victims of their own success, because their historically high value made them the first food products to fall victim to industrialisation, capitalism, and globalisation. The relative value of spices dropped most dramatically after the world’s biggest spice-growing nations were colonised by European powers from the 1500s. In the first place, this broke the lucrative monopoly that Arabian and Venetian traders had on the Asian spice trade. Furthermore, thanks to slave labour, industrialised production methods, and the transplanting of native spice trees from one continent to other colonies with similar climates, previously precious spices from one particular region were grown, on a larger scale, all over the world. Combined with the modernisation of shipping and transportation (including railways), procuring spices became much easier and cheaper than it had been in the past. By the late 19th century, spices had become more like common kitchen items than valuable luxury goods. They were no longer fashionable.
And the same goes today. For even in the age of farm-to-table dining, ethical sourcing, and demands for traceability and transparency in the food system, spices have been left behind. Nutmeg, once so valuable that the Dutch gave up New York for it (depending on how you interpret the 1667 Treaty of Breda), is lucky to get pulled out of the cupboard once a year to make Christmas cookies. Cinnamon, 500 grams of which Pliny the Elder says would have taken an ancient Roman craftsman a whole year’s worth of wages to buy, is dusted over takeaway cappuccinos for free (buying a pound of ginger, by the way, would’ve taken 18 years’wages!). And black pepper has gone from being a valid form of currency across medieval Europe to being a boring table-top ornament, a lifeless beige powder that can be thrown mindlessly onto any meal.
For some reason, even for the spices we do say we like to cook with, we seem to worry very little about where they come from. Wild foragers or famous chefs who swear by only using local, seasonal ingredients will often call for a bit of pepper or dried chilli from the other side of the planet like it’s no big deal. While the notion of terroiris strong among wine circles and cocktail mixologists, very few discussions are had about the organoleptic properties of different spices grown in different regions. And it’s easy to forget that what we call spices are all natural plant products, just like carrots, coffee, or wheat — yet you never see words like organic, single-origin, or stone-groundon spice labels.
There is a dark side to those little boxes of powder (or even the colourful mountains you see piled up at markets and spice shops), too: spices have a long, convoluted, slightly sinister supply chain. They are often produced in remote areas of poor, perhaps politically unstable countries, which are among the most vulnerable in the world to corruption and modern slavery. The distance travelled between a spice’s production and final purchasing point necessitates a shelf life which means that the dried, ground spices we end up with have only a scrap of the vibrant volatile oils that first gave them their lofty reputation – and they are often adulterated, ‘cut’ with a filler, or treated with chemical additives and preservatives along the way.
For some reason, we tend to ignore or brush aside these elements. For example, when the price of vanilla shot above €500 per kilo in June this year (it was €32 per kilo two years ago), most international news stories focused on whether ice cream manufacturers could continue selling their ‘plain’ vanilla ice cream at the same price. No mention of the deforestation, roaming gangs of vanilla thieves, murders by desperate defensive farmers, and government collusion in laundering illegal timber profits through the vanilla market – the realities of vanilla production in Madagascar, which accounts for 80% of the world’s supply.
In other words, there is a lot wrong in the world of spices. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make it right. We could start by giving spices the respect they deserve: buy your spices whole, whether dried or fresh, and grind them yourself (a pestle and mortar or coffee grinder will do). Only buy small quantities that you will actually use, rather than stocking up for the Apocalypse, to keep them fresh. Look into which spices are grown locally (or nationally) and experiment with using those, rather than following a recipe calling for far-flung exotic spices you can only find in lifeless powdered form.
Finally, ask questions. Because the more we know about spices, the better. That means not only knowing where spices come from and how they are grown, but also knowing how they are meantto taste and smell. Rediscovering the intoxicating qualities that drove our ancestors crazy. It means knowing what spices are like when they are fresh and at their best, rather than in the lifeless, adulterated, dry powder form we’ve become used to. Simply asking questions about suppliers at your local spice shop or market can teach you a lot – and who knows, it may even have a trickle-down effect on that infamous supply and production chain.