Spices & Seasonings – It’s Amazing Untold Story Throughout the Years

“He who controls the spice controls the universe.” Frank Herbert, Dune

A1 Cash and Carry offers a mind-boggling selection of spices - a vast range of varieties and sizes that dwarfs that of most major grocery markets of Ontario. Considering A1 Cash and Carry’s roots, which are strongly connected to Southeast Asia, this should come as no surprise. The spice trade first developed on the Indian subcontinent with black pepper and cinnamon.

The history of spice is intimately entwined with the history of empires rising and falling as the competition for control of the spice trade routes meant a dominant position of wealth and power throughout the ancient and medieval worlds.

The mighty Egyptian Empire in 3500BCE demanded exotic spices for flavoring food, for making cosmetics and for embalming the dead. The trade of spices across the Middle East and Far Eastern worlds became a guaranteed path to riches. When the Han Dynasty in China officially opened trade with the West, the famous Silk Road developed as a network of trade routes linking the Far East with Northern Africa and Europe. Spices (and many other products) were brought from the East via camel and donkey caravans and exchanged for goods such as animals, honey, fruits, textiles, glassware, and precious metals. The quest for wealth and power was on.

Arab merchants and middlemen controlled the trade routes for almost 5000 years, establishing proprietary routes that were defended to the death. Spices from China, Indonesia, India and Ceylon traveled overland, and the Egyptian port city Alexandria became the center of the spice trade. 

As western civilization emerged from the Dark Ages into the early Middle Ages, the city state of Venice dominated the European spice trade. It was the son of a Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, who brought back all kinds of spices from his famous journeys to the east, whetting everyone’s appetite. Europe was hooked. Venice’s seafaring supremacy and its proximity to Alexandria led to their domination of the European spice trade from 800 to the 15th century. The spice trade made Venice and the region around it very rich and influential.

Fortunes were there for the taking. European aristocracy began funding huge expeditions to establish their own sources. In the 12th century, the king of Aragon spent a fortune in the effort to bring back spices to Spain. In England in the 1400s, a pound of black pepper was worth as much as a whole pig. It is estimated that throughout the late Middle Ages, 1000 tons of pepper and another 1000 tons of the other popular spices were imported into Western Europe every single year.

The actual source in the east of all the popular spices remained a closely guarded secret among the Arabs who controlled the trade routes. It was the search for a cheaper way to get spices from the east that led to Europe’s Age of Exploration and the discovery of the New World. Mastery of the seas by the emerging European powers, Portugal, and Spain, led to the discovery of the monsoon winds, which greatly facilitated sailing from the far east spice centers and back to Europe. The adventures of explorers like Magellan, Da Gama and Dias were to establish sea routes to and from the spice sources. Da Gama discovered a route around the southern tip of Africa. In 1498 he returned to Portugal with a cargo of nutmegs, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorns. Columbus sailed east for spices and found America. Sailing directly to the far eastern spice centers and back again to Europe gradually replaced the Arab controlled overland routes, eventually bypassing them entirely.

The huge demand for spices in Europe was not just for flavoring foods. Medieval medicine relied heavily on balancing the bodies ‘humors’, which grew to necessitate huge quantities of spices.

DEBUNKED: The Middle Ages lacked refrigeration and hygiene, causing a lot of food spoilage. Somehow spices have been attributed to being an effective preservative as well as masking the taste of spoiled meat and as such, solidifying its insatiable demand. Nothing could be further from the truth. Spices are quite ineffective as a preservative compared to salting, smoking, pickling, and drying and don’t mask the taste of bad meat at all. When you consider that spices were also very expensive, using them as a preservative was neither effective nor affordable. Plus, old cookbooks from that time make it clear that spices were not used as a preservative. They typically suggest adding spices toward the end of the cooking process, where they would have no preservative effect whatsoever.

The history of spices in shaping our world today runs deep indeed. And there is really no end to fascinating facts and stories about spices. The most expensive spice, saffron, costs more per gram than gold. Consider this from The Paleo Mom, Dr. Sarah Ballantyne - PhD, best-selling author, and world-renowned health expert. “In order to produce a single pound of saffron, about 200,000 thread-like sigma’s needs to be hand-picked from 70,000 Crocus sativus flowers, which only bloom within a one- or two-week window each year and must be hand-picked when they blossom at dawn, since they quickly wilt throughout the day.” Mind boggling.

All spices (including allspice which was discovered by Columbus during his second expedition to the New World) do contain quantities of valuable nutrients, but in small quantities because they are used in such small portions. But let us face it, our world of delicious meals would suffer greatly without the wonderful taste of spices.

Concludingly, it can be noted that spices and seasonings are an integral part of modern-day cooking either it involves cooking at home or in restaurants. It is always advisable to choose an authentic wholesale grocery supplier who provides authentic range of spices. No matter what spice or seasoning you are going for including saffron, cumin powder, coriander powder, cardamom, fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi), garlic powder and ginger powder, bay leaves among countless others, spices are responsible for adding the warm and taste to the cooking.

“All those spices and herbs in your spice rack can do more than provide calorie-free, natural flavorings to enhance and make food delicious. They’re also an incredible source of antioxidants and help rev up your metabolism and improve your health at the same time.” Suzanne Somers

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