Not far from where I sit — maybe forty feet or so, as the termite bores — I have a store of unimaginable wealth.
It’s called my kitchen spice cabinet.
Salt. Black pepper. Red pepper. Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme. Cumin and paprika; cinnamon and ginger. Vanilla, in both extract and bean form. Even a precious little jar of saffron. Thanks to my husband’s hobbies of baking and jam-making, rather gobsmacking quantities of sugar — though that one doesn’t fit into the cabinet.
Not that long ago, these things would have been incredibly valuable. Some of them still are: thanks to the labor involved in harvesting saffron, it remains the world’s most valuable spice by weight, with a kilogram being worth five thousand U.S. dollars, or even more. Spices have long made for excellent trade goods, because their value relative to their bulk and weight is high.
Why are they worth so much? Well, to begin with, we like the taste — modulo personal preferences, of course, as not everyone enjoys everything. (I’m in the camp for which cilantro tastes like Not. Food.) Herbs, spices, and other seasonings can make dull meals far more pleasurable; one of my cookbooks suggests that as we’ve sought to restrict our intake of tasty things like salt, sugar, and fat for health reasons, we’re leaning harder on other ingredients to supply flavor.
You’ll sometimes see books parroting the notion that medieval Europeans used spices to cover up the taste of meat that had gone off. This, I fear, is utter nonsense: they knew perfectly well what spoiled meat looked and smelled like, and they had regulations to prevent butchers from selling it. Furthermore, anyone who could afford to buy exotic spices from the other side of the planet could also afford fresh meat, and had no reason to waste priceless seasonings on bad food. However, it is true that some spices have anti-microbial properties, inhibiting the growth of bacteria or mold. The examples I’m aware of tend to be native to tropical regions, where food is liable to go off more rapidly, so it may well be true that the flavor palettes of tropical cuisines developed synergistically, leaning on local flora that also made the food safer to eat.
The fact that many popular spices originate in tropical regions, and often in very limited areas of those regions, adds to their value in other parts of the world. It’s a basic socio-economic principle: things which have to be imported over a long distance have the transit costs added in, which means only the wealthy can afford them, which then makes those things seem more desirable overall, which drives up the price. Nor is this simply a matter of culinary fashion; even a brief glance at the history of European colonialism in Southeast Asia especially will show how much of it was driven by a desire to control the trade in valuable commodities, of which spices were high on the list.
It’s interesting to look at what’s “exotic,” though, and what gets used where, when. Medieval European recipes refer with reasonable frequency to “galingale” — which turns out to be galangal, a Southeast Asian relative of ginger. I’ve seen ginger appear in my cookbooks, but never galangal; it’s apparently less commonly used among twenty-first century white Americans than among fourteenth-century Brits. Meanwhile, I’ve seen it said that the first edition of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961 included an explanation of what thyme was, and how to get your local grocer to order it in. Sometimes the shift occurs because a superior alternative becomes available: myrtle berries have a faintly peppery taste (still found in mortadella and bologna sausages, apparently), but peppercorns are stronger, and largely supplanted the use of myrtle among the wealthy in imperial Roman times. In other cases, it may be that the older material is more difficult to grow or harvest efficiently — though that hasn’t stopped saffron. But sometimes there seems to be no reason apart from fashion: although the Romans also made heavy use of lovage, a relative of celery, we’ve almost forgotten it nowadays.
I should make special mention here of salt and sugar, neither of which are technically herbs or spices, because of their outsized role in history. Salt already came up in the context of preservation; it’s also important for health in general, not just for humans but for animals (who will visit naturally occurring mineral licks to get the nutrients they require). Pastoralists generally obtain enough salt from the animal products they consume, but agriculturalists need to mine it from rock salt deposits or extract it, usually through evaporation, from brine. Good sources of salt are the kind of thing countries will go to war over, and interference with salt supplies can help bring an enemy nation to its knees.
Sugar in its crystallized form is a relative latecomer by comparison, but its effect on history may have been even more destructive. It’s one thing to grow a little sugarcane and chew it for pleasure, but producing sugarcane in large volumes and processing it into crystals (or other forms, such as rum and molasses) used to be grueling and dangerous work — and therefore one of the main sources of demand for enslaved labor. Anti-abolitionists often made a public point of eschewing sugar for much the same reason that we talk about avoiding “conflict diamonds” today.
What do you do without sugarcane? (Or sugar beets, which produce the same substance.) There are alternatives, starting with honey, which probably the most common option both in the past and today. Many fruits are naturally sweet; their juices, especially boiled down, can be used to flavor other foods. Various saps can be dried or reduced to make syrups or sugars: maple trees are famous for this, having been used by indigenous North Americans for a long time, and the tree called manna ash was used in Europe by 1400. I’ve had a more difficult time pinpointing how far back other options go, like birch syrup (old, I think, but harder to produce than maple syrup), agave syrup, sweet sorghum, and palm sugar. You can extract sweet juices from some roots, like yacón, licorice, or sweet cicely, or from flowers and their nectar, or from grains processed in certain ways; of that last, barley malt syrup has a long history in East Asia.
Some of these alternatives do have side effects, though, which leads me to the last point I want to make. Herbs, spices, sweeteners, and so forth don’t just have culinary uses; they’ve also seen employment as medicine. Herbalism had its moment in the spotlight back in Year Three, so I won’t go into great detail here, but I want to emphasize that the medicinal uses were a mix of absolute nonsense and real science: that anti-microbial property I mentioned before can be as useful for wounds as it is for food, while under the right circumstances, the laxative effects of something like sugar pine sap might be just what the doctor ordered. But when it comes to exotic seasonings in particular — whatever “exotic” might be for your locality — people have ascribed all manner of miraculous effects to them, well beyond what the data would support.
Which, of course, is another factor driving up the price. So much importance, attached to things we use in such small quantities.