A Brief History Of Herbs and Spices

Shortly after the first caveman burnt meat in the fire and realized it was pretty good, the next one thought, “What will make this taste better? How about some of that green thing?”

We don’t have records of the first herbs used to flavor food, but there is no denying that herbs and spices have been used since before recorded history to flavor food, help preserve it, and to heal.

You may not think of it much nowadays, with everything in neat little jars in the store and on your counter, but every spice and herb we use has a long history behind it.  These days we use spices from all over the world, but there was a time when everything had to be carried by hand or horseback or boat from where it grew.  The history of spice is, in a way, also the history of civilization.

Basil –  Basil is probably native to India, where it has been cultivated for over 5000 years. Early travelers brought it to Ancient Greece and later Italy. The common Italian variety is Genovese, or sweet basil, but Thai basil is more commonly used in Asian cuisine.  In most areas it is an annual, but given a warm welcoming environment it will behave like any perennial.  Prune any developing flowerbuds to encourage continued leaf development.  Fresh basil is used in cooked foods and salads, but loses its flavor quickly when cooked.

Garlic – Garlic is a plant in the allium family like onions, leeks , chives and shallots.  Garlic grows as a bulb, which contains many cloves.  Most recipes use the cloves of garlic, chopped or minced fresh. Garlic is pretty widespread and used all across the world, and has been for thousands of years. Fresh garlic greens taste pretty much like green onion greens, with a slight taste of garlic.  Garlic has been used medicinally, including as an antiseptic during World War I and II.  Concentrated garlic juice was also used as glue for artisan’s gilding manuscripts during the medieval period.

Onions – Onions are another allium and also widespread in cultivation and use. Onions are baked, fried, grilled, pickled, sauteed , dried and eaten fresh. Onions grow in many regions, but some varieties take longer than others to mature, so do better in area with longer growing seasons.  Onion greens can be eaten fresh or dried.

Saffron –  A native of southwest Asia, the saffron crocus flower bears up to four flowers. In the heart of each flower the thin red threadlike stigma is the saffron. This tiny filament adds immense flavor and brilliant yellow color to dishes.  Saffron is one of the most expensive spices commonly used, in the Unites States saffron whole prices run from $500 to $1000 dollars a pound.  Thankfully you only need a tiny amount for any given dish. My itty bitty jar has lasted for over 10 years.

Cumin –  If you open a jar of cumin and sniff you will immediately think of Mexican food.  The signature flavor of cumin is in many Mexican dishes as well as traditional Indian cuisine. The plant is native to the east Mediterranean through to South Asia.  The seeds are ground and dried for use in cooking.  Historically there are records as far back as the New Kingdoms in Egypt.

Peppercorns – Black pepper is native to India. It has been cultivated and trade for thousands of years.  The path of the spice trade ran from India to Ancient Greece and Rome as well as many other countries.  Black peppers are the dried unripe berries of the vine.   White and red peppers are from the same plant, but are the ripe or undried versions of the same fruit. Pepper is so commonly used in western cuisine that pepper shakers and grinders are on almost every dinner table.

Vanilla – Vanilla is so common as a flavoring for sweet pasties and desserts that it is easy to forget that it is a relative newcomer to western cuisine.   This orchid from Mexico and Central America was brought to Europe int he 1500’s but proved hard to cultivate in other regions until the method of hand pollination was discovered in in the 1840’s. Vanillas is the second most expense spice, due to the difficulties in cultivation. However the bean and extract are used worldwide.

Cacao Chocolate – Another newcomer to western Cuisine, the beans of the cocoa plant are beloved by many in its more familiar, ground and sweetened form, chocolate.   The Mayans and Incans used the dried cacao beans straight up in drinks and foods.  The Europeans added milk, and sugar to form the basis of the chocolate we know today.

As people traded spices and herbs back adn forth, sailed for months to buy cargo, and carried their prizes back home they also carried  recipes, stories and culture from one end of the world to the other. Form the ancient Egyptian, trading to India, to the Spanish bringing New World Vanilla and Cacao back to the kingdoms of Europe, spice and herbs have always gone hand in hand with civilization.

 – Lyrra Madril

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