The Spicy History of Your Favorite Spices

These days, getting a hold of your favorite spice is simply a matter of heading to the grocery store and buying a bottle. If you want a particularly rare variety, you might need to drive to a specialty grocer. But only a few centuries ago, spices were a much bigger deal. Trade routes were established simply for the sake of spices. Monopolies were established to protect the value of these culinary specialties. And wars were even fought for them. Next time you reach into your spice rack, remember a few of these saucy facts about some of the most common seasonings.


Let’s kick things off with the world’s most expensive spice, the exotic saffron. This colorful spice is the stigma of a beautiful purple/blue flower. Interestingly, the autumn-blooming plant with three highly valuable stigmas per flower doesn’t even exist in nature. It’s speculated that the sterile flower is a descendant of the Mediterranean flower Crocus cartwrightianus. Whatever the true origins of the flower though, it was subjected to extensive artificial selection starting over 3000 years ago by growers seeking longer stigmas until the plant became sterile and was no longer the same species as its original source. If you’re wondering how they keep a species of sterile flowers alive, the process involves digging up the flower’s bulbs, breaking them up and then replanting them. Each plant can produce about ten blubs. This process, along with the relatively small bit of the flower actually used account for why saffron is so darn expensive. About forty hours of labor are required to pick 150,000 flowers and each pound of saffron requires between 50,000 and 75,000 flowers. That’s about one week’s worth of work to pick about a football field worth of flowers all for two pounds of saffron. Once in the market, the price per pound of saffron ranges from $500 to $5,000. These days, saffron is most commonly used in paellas, but throughout history, the spice has been used to treat illness, to dye clothing, to bathe in, and as a yummy seasoning, of course. Alexander the Great used saffron in his rice and in his bath to help treat his battle wounds. His troops followed suit and brought the practice back to Greece where saffron baths became all the rage. During the Black Plague, saffron was sold as a medicine to treat the illness. There was such a huge demand that when a shipment of the spice was stolen by noblemen, a fourteen-week long “Saffron War” broke out. The flower’s cultivation soon started spreading north and soon there were so many people selling counterfeit saffron in Nuremberg that the city issued a law that made it a crime punishable by death to sell adulterated saffron. As it turns out, the spice is highly useful as a medicine although its effectiveness against the plague is still questionable. Recent studies have found that it can help treat Alzheimer’s, depression, obesity, PMS, breast cancer, allergies and help prevent heart and eye problems. Source Image Via Kenpei [Wikipedia]


While you probably know vanilla comes from a bean, did you know that bean came from a beautiful orchid plant? Or that while we are now accustomed to “Tahitian vanilla” and “Madagascar vanilla,” the orchid is actually native to Mexico? In fact, even though vanilla was brought to Europe by Cortez in the 1520’s, it wasn’t until the 1840’s that a 12-year-old boy figured out a way to hand pollinate the flowers that previously could only reproduce with the help of Mexico’s native Melipona bee. Once little Edmond Albius figured out this process, the plant quickly started being grown commercially in tropical climates around the world. These days, Madagascar is the largest supplier of the bean, responsible for 58% of the total vanilla production. Despite the fact that it can be grown in tropical areas throughout the world, the process to grow the plants is so labor intensive that vanilla is still the second most expensive spice in the world. Long before Cortez arrived in the New World, the Totonacs of the Gulf Coast were the first people to cultivate vanilla. According to their folklore, the orchid was born when the Goddess Princess Xanat was forbidden to marry a mortal. She fled to the forest with her lover, but both of them were captured and beheaded. When the blood hit the ground, the vines of the orchid plant magically took root. Source


The nutmeg tree is the only tropical tree that provides two different spices, nutmeg and mace. The tree is native to the Molucca Islands of Indonesia, which is also where cloves come from. The first non-natives to discover the islands were Arab spice traders, who kept the location of the spice-bearing islands a secret. Eventually though, the Portuguese captured the natives and forced them to show them where the spices grew, but the Moluccans fought back, forcing the Portuguese to abandon the islands. In the meanwhile, the Dutch and English led a bloody battle over the island’s spices, one which the Dutch eventually won after massacring huge numbers of the area’s natives. During Napoleon’s reign, the English took over the islands and transplanted a few nutmeg trees into their other colonial properties, Grenada and Zanzibar, effectively destroying the Dutch monopoly. As I mentioned in previous Neatorama article, when the Dutch were in control, they would generally apply lime to the seeds they imported to Europe to prevent people from being able to grow their own spices and hurt their monopoly. At the time, all spices were called peppers and a pirate/horticulturalist named Pierre Poivre managed to raid a few of their stores hoping to get seeds to cultivate his own seasonings. Hence the origins of the Peter Piper rhyme. One of the compounds that gives nutmeg its particular taste is myristicin, which also happens to be a hallucinogen. While most of us limit our intake of the spice so we never feel its effects, it is banned from most prison kitchens because of its popularity among drug users who can’t get a hold of other substances. While the initial feeling has been compared to smoking marijuana, side effects include headaches, nausea, convulsions, hallucinations and really short trips. In fact, the side effects are so bad that even William Burroughs swore the stuff off after one use. Sources: Wikipedia and The Quantum Biologist


Fennel is an incredibly useful plant. Its bulbs can be enjoyed as a vegetable, its leaves can provide a delicate flavor to a variety of foods and its seeds and pollen are used as an anise-flavored spice. The history of the plant goes back millennia and there are even a few different Greek myths related to it.

In one myth, Prometheus used the stalk of the plant to steal fire from the gods. In another, the god Dionysus fashioned a self-pleasuring toy out of a fennel branch to satisfy himself after one of his lovers died before he was able to consummate the relationship. Strangely, this myth is still directly connected to the plant in Italy, where the word for it, finoccio, is also a derogatory term for homosexuals. The term has been used all the way back since the Italian Inquisition. Of course, the word “fennel” itself is hardly offensive, coming from the Latin word “fenum,” which means hay.



Salt is one of the world’s oldest food preservatives and evidence even shows that Neolithic people were extracting salt from salt-laden spring water all the way back in 6050 B.C. Experts believe their salt extraction may have even had a direct correlation to the rapid population growth that occurred soon after the salt-removal process began. Back in Egyptian times, salt was used to preserve fish and birds, but it was also included in funeral offerings located inside their tombs. The word “salary” comes from the Latin word “salarium” which was used to describe the money paid to Roman soldiers towards their purchase of salt. The word “salad” also comes from the spice, and refers to the Roman practice of salting leafed vegetables. Poland was a massive empire in the 16th century due to their many salt mines, but their kingdom was soon destroyed when the Germans started manufacturing sea salt.  Venice and Genoa even fought wars over the mineral. More recently, Mahatma Gandhi led over 100,000 people in protest of the British rule against making their own salt from the sea, as it allowed people to avoid paying their salt tax. The civil disobedience made international headlines and inspired millions of people to protest the British rule of their country and fight for Indian independence. And you thought table salt was boring. Source: Wikipedia #1 and #2 Image Via Lucag [Wikipedia]


Pepper is salt’s table-side cousin, but it hasn’t always been so closely related to the world’s most natural preservative. The spice is native to South Asia and has been used in Indian food since at least 2000 B.C. Peppercorns were found in the nostrils of Ramesses II in his tomb, used as part of the mummification rituals from around 1200 B.C. When trade routes connected India to the rest of the world, pepper was one of the most highly-valued spices, often referred to as “black gold” for the incredibly high prices it would fetch. In fact, in some areas, peppercorns were even used as a form of currency. In fact, the Dutch language still uses the term “peperduur” meaning “pepper expensive” in English, to describe something very expensive. The spice was so important to Europeans that it even changed the course of world history, being one of the spices that led the Portuguese efforts to discover a faster sea route to India during the age of discovery. So if you live in the Americas and you aren’t a descendant of the natives, you can thank pepper and the rest of the Indian spices for driving explorers to actually find your home. In more modern times, peppercorn is relatively inexpensive as far as spices go, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a big market item. In fact, pepper is still the most widely traded spice in the world, accounting for around 20% of all spice imports. If you’ve ever wondered what the difference between black, green, red, white and pink peppercorns are, here’s the break down. Black pepper is produced from unripe fruit of the pepper plant, as is green pepper. Green peppers are treated in a way to preserve their color, such as freeze-drying or treatment with sulfur dioxide, but otherwise, they’re essentially the same as dried green peppercorns, which turn into black peppercorns. Red peppercorns are also preserved in the same way, but their fruits are already ripe. Green peppercorns are also some times preserved in brine and sold pickled for use in sauces. These peppercorns are considered spicier than the white peppercorns, which is made from the ripe seed of the pepper plant but without any of the fruit. As for pink peppercorns, they aren’t actually from the same family as real pepper plants. In fact, while true peppercorns grow on a vine, pink peppercorns grow on large trees. While you can still use them and they have a similar taste, they can cause nausea and diarrhea in those with weaker digestive systems.

Source: Wikipedia #1 and #2

Image Via Ragesoss [Wikipedia]

Chili Peppers

Chili peppers are native to the Americas and have been part of the native’s diet since at least 7500 B.C. and it is one of the first cultivated crops in the Americas that are actually self-pollinating. When they were brought to Europe, they were first grown solely as a novelty by Spanish and Portuguese monks, but when they started experimenting with the chilies’ culinary properties, they soon started using their homegrown peppers in place of black pepper, which was incredibly expensive at the time. If you’ve ever wondered what makes peppers burn your mouth, it’s because the capsaicinoids in the peppers bind to the pain receptors in your mouth that are responsible for sensing heat. The brain responds by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and releasing endorphins. The endorphin release is why some people become so obsessed with eating chilies. The heat of the peppers is measured with the Scoville heat units (SHU). This is measured by how much a chili extract has to be diluted in sugar syrup before the heat is undetectable to a panel of tasters. The baselines are bell peppers, which ranks at 0 SHU, and pure capsaicin, which measures at 16,000,000 SHU. Habaneros come in at 300,000 SHU and the Guinness  World Record holding pepper is the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper, which comes in at 1,463,700


Image Via Daniel Risacher [Wikipedia] What’s your favorite spice and do you know any cool history or trivia about it? If so, let’s share!

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my favorite spice is definitely pepper and chili peppers, by a long shot! i LOVE spicy food, whether it's the "dry" heat of black pepper, or the different flavors of various chilies from around the world (although you couldn't pay me enough money to try a Butch T!!!) although over the past couple of years, my stomach has become sensitive to spicy food and i get cramps...but i found out that it's often the seeds of chili peppers that cause an upset stomach, so i try to remove as many seeds as i can when cooking. unfortunately, this also removes a lot of heat (because capsaicin transfers directly from the ribs into the seeds), so i've got to use more chilies. i have to be careful not to damage the ribs when i remove the seeds, but overall it works pretty well and i get far fewer stomach problems when i cooks spicy food now (i just have to remember to buy a few more chili peppers to make up for it).

and as far as peppercorns go...there's absolutely nothing like FRESH-GROUND black pepper! i think most people are used to buying that pre-ground dusty stuff in the rectangular can, which has virtually no flavor and is pretty much's DEFINITELY worth it to spend a couple more dollars to buy a container of whole peppercorns and grind them yourself. most people don't realise that spices lose their flavor pretty quickly after being ground/grated/whatever, so that pre-ground stuff that people buy barely tastes like anything other than flavorless powder!

my third-fave spice is one that wasn't mentioned...cinnamon. cinnamon has a long and varied history (that i won't go into here), but it's delicious with everything from hot chocolate to orange-glazed chicken and all sorts of other stuff.
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Mexican vanilla is the best tasting and much cheaper than the other varieties. Stay away from the "vanilla flavored extract" that a lot of the spice companies sell. It's not real vanilla and it's much more expensive than the real thing.
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