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HERBS AND SPICES

the Byzantine topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The earliest known Chinese records of the uses of plants date from 2700 B.C.E., from the herbal compiled by Emperor Chin Nong. In India the Vedic literature of about 1500– 1200 B.C.E. describes many different plants used in reli- gious ceremonies. When the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in the tenth century B.C.E., she offered gifts of rare and sought-after spices and herbs, probably with the hope of increasing and expanding the existing trade in these commodities.

The formal herb garden at the Henry Doubleday Research As- sociation’s garden center, Ryton, near Coventry, England. Fea- tured here are golden feverfew, lady’s mantle, and tansy. The Ryton gardens are open to the public and offer programs on growing herbs organically. © MICHAEL BOYS/CORBIS.

aromatic rhizomes with large, upright, alternate leaves. They are mostly found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. In this family are cardamom, Chinese keys, galangal, gingers, torch ginger, turmeric, and zedoary.

History

Archaeological evidence shows that the use of spices and herbs dates back to long before recorded history, when human ancestors first added sharp-flavored leaves to early cooking pots. Roaming hunter-gatherer groups experi- mented with leaves, roots, flowers, and seeds, so over time they built up a precious compendium of knowledge that was passed from one generation to the next. As civiliza- tion progressed and nomadic tribes settled in one place, herbs and spices were not just collected from the wild but were deliberately sown near dwelling places. By the be- ginning of the agricultural period plants were collected from the wild and grown near dwellings for food, flavor, medicine, fuel, decoration, dyes, poison, and weapons and to alter early humans’ sense of reality.

The earliest written records come from ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian cultures. The Ebers Pa- pyrus that dates from 1550 B.C.E. describes some eight hundred different medicinal remedies and numerous medicinal procedures. Early Egyptians used spices and herbs in medicine, as cosmetics and perfumes, for em- balming, in cooking, and to kill and repel pests.

Trade

The ancient trade in some spices was highly lucrative. Black pepper was the most lucrative of all, although cas- sia and cinnamon were essential ingredients in Egyptian embalmment. Taprobane (Sri Lanka) was well known to the Greeks and Romans, and trade with it is described in

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Evidence of trading and use of herbs and spices is in the writings, among others, of the Greek physician Dioscorides and the Roman civil servant Pliny the Elder in the first century C.E. The spread of the Roman Em- pire also spread herbs such as rosemary, savory, garlic, and thyme into northern Europe and Britain. Romans took with them precious supplies of spices like pepper and ginger. The fall of the Roman Empire accompanied a dramatic decrease in trade until the eighth century and the spread of the Muslim Empire, when once again spices and herbs were on the move and were widely used in medicine and cooking. After the Norman conquest of Britain, spices such as ginger, cloves, mace, and pepper were once again found on the tables of wealthy Britons.

Later the ongoing search for and trade in other valu- able spices, which at different times have been worth as much as gold, led to some of the great voyages of dis- covery. Ginger, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, galangal, mace, and nutmeg were the reasons for battles fought, fortunes made and lost, and new worlds discovered. These spices launched Europe and Britain, attempting to satiate their desires for these exotic ingredients, into the age of exploration. Christopher Columbus discovered America while searching for a new sea route to the Spice Islands. In 1498 Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese naviga- tor, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and established a new spice route to India and beyond. Magellan eventu- ally found the western route to the Spice Islands in the 1520s. In the following centuries the Portuguese, Dutch, and British fought wars for control of these routes and the islands where many of the spices grew.

Modern methods of preservation led to a decrease in the use of spices in many Western countries, and at the same time, with modern methods of transportation, spices became ubiquitous and relatively cheap.

Growing Herbs and Spices

In the past herbs and spices were grown in gardens and harvested for use in the home, or they were collected from the wild, in what was known as wild crafting. As the demand for herbs and spices increased, they were also grown on a small scale as agricultural crops. The growth, harvest, and processing of herbs and spices was and in many cases has remained a labor-intensive enterprise. Consequently these crops often were grown in countries where labor was cheap. In the early twenty-first century Egypt grew and exported large quantities of anise, basil,

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