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Herbs and Spices

Chapter Summary

1. The characteristic scents of aromatic plants, such as herbs and spices, are due to volatile substances called essential oils, which can be extracted to obtain the essence of the plant. Spices generally have a tropical origin and have been used for a variety of purposes since ancient times. The ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations all used spices extensively for cooking, embalming, and medicine and as perfumes. Trading routes for the purpose of obtaining these spices from India and China have a long history. Exotic spices became rare in Europe during the Dark Ages, but trade routes to the East were reopened during the Crusades. Marco Polo’s account of his travels to the court of Kublai Khan renewed the European desire for spices. The Portuguese, under the direction of Prince Henry the Navigator, were the first European power to travel by sea to India via the Cape of Good Hope. Christopher Columbus himself sailed west in an attempt to reach the spice-rich lands of the East.

2. The history of spices is the history of domination of the spice-rich lands by various European powers. Spice plantations were established in European colonies to cash in on the lucrative spice trade. Some of the most sought-after spices were cinnamon, black pepper, and cloves. Capsicum peppers, vanilla, and allspice from the New World were added to the list of spice treasures.

3. Herbs are usually the aromatic leaves of plants from temperate regions. The mint family is the source of many familiar herbs: peppermint, spearmint, marjoram, and oregano, to name a few. The parsley family is another important herb family; herbs in this family include parsley, dill, and caraway. Mustard and horseradish are members of the mustard family. Allicin is the sulfurous compound in onion, garlic, and related plants in the lily family that is the source of tearing and unpleasant aromas but also medicinal effects.

4. Herbal dyes were one of the main sources of color in the ancient world, replaced by synthetic dyes only in the latter half of the nineteenth century.