Christmas is soon upon us! Granted most supermarkets and High Street stores have tried to convince us that the jolly season began sometime in the middle of October, but the calendar tell us that it’s not quite time yet. It will be soon enough though. Soon we will be decking the hall with boughs of holly and falalala-ling our way through one Christmas feast after another. The stores are already filled with Mince Pies, Christmas puddings, and various other festive sweets. Common for all these products are the heady concoction of spices: The intoxicating smells of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, anise seeds and cloves seem to be omnipresent during December.
Historically, the use of spices was nothing new in the Seventeenth century; the earliest recipes for Mince pie seem to date back to the fourteenth century when spices came from the Levant through the Mediterranean to England to make lasting impact on the native cuisine. When the Portuguese explorers made their way around the cape of Africa they started a struggle for European access to the riches of the East, amongst other things, access to the many spices. The newly discovered route to the East gave Northern European countries an opportunity to circumnavigate the Levantine middlemen in the spice trade and trade directly with the East Asian monarchs.
The procuring of these spices was all-important for the English East India Company (EIC), as was securing the quality of the spices and in the EIC Letter Books from the Company’s earliest days the importance of this quality is stressed in letters to the Company’s factors. These letters give a glimpse of how difficult it was to trade over so vast distances, how little confidence there seem to have been in the locals (and in the company factors), and how fierce the competition with other Europeans was:
Writing the Company factors in 1606: Our Nutmeg were exceeding bad, being light, not having their full ripens, which afterwards when carvinge and removing turned to dust, to a great loss, as indeed not worth the bringing home besides the freight & custom we paid for them: At which ignorance of you, to buy such spices, we conceive the Indians do rejoice […].
Likewise you are to be careful as much as you may to avoid the buying of Cloves when they are green preventing the loss that happens thereby: As also to foresee that there be not much dust or sand put into them by the Country people to make the weigh heavy. Yet we wish you not […] to refuse green Cloves: if either the use be to buy them so or the Hollanders would otherwise prevent you of them.
In the end EIC lost out to the Dutch East India Company who established themselves as the primary traders to the Spice Islands; instead the EIC focussed the efforts on the Coromandel Coast and Bengal. However, the spices are here to stay and every Christmas exotic spices can found in practically every dish bringing the exotic past into our homes.