When black pepper was a currency, why were the Chinese forced to chew cloves?

From the beginning of our history until the 19th century, people sought to possess spices. From the 1st millennium BC, this product was the most profitable and running worldwide. Spices were valued in Europe so much that they sometimes cost more than gold.

In some countries of the world, they even acted as a separate currency, which is why some rulers set themselves the goal of finding a way to the eastern plantations at all costs. Centuries passed, rulers and dynasties changed, and spices continued to guarantee wealth to the most successful countries in the world.

Spicy tycoons of the world

Since ancient times, spices have gone around the world from the plantations of India, Malaysia and Indonesia. From there, the goods were delivered to the coast of Hindustan, where they were reloaded onto Arab ships that delivered cargo to Oman, Egypt and by caravans to the Mediterranean Sea. This path has not changed for almost 2.5 thousand years, and the spice trade was the main capital of the countries mentioned. Only intermediaries in the Mediterranean waters were replaced.

Trade routes for spices
Trade routes for spices

Delivery of spices one way took up to 2 years. By the 12th century, the leadership in trade went to the Venetians. Despite the papal prohibition for Christians to trade with the Saracens, the Venetians found a way to open trading posts in Byzantium and the eastern Mediterranean.

In the 14th century, a French merchant decided to count how many times spices were resold until they reached Europe -12! It is clear that at each stage the goods received added value. Venice flourished at an unprecedented rate, becoming the richest city of the Middle Ages. But in the 15th century, Constantinople fell, and the Turks took over the spice trade.

Over time, Spain and Portugal became the main suppliers of spices in the world. Soon France, England and the Netherlands entered the struggle for spice capital. Even the East India Companies were set up and given monopoly rights, making the spices even more expensive. To get the latest stories, install our app here.

Where did the popular spices come from today?

The reason for the enormous popularity of spices in the Middle Ages is obvious. In addition to their direct purpose – improving the quality of dishes, herbs retained the fresh taste of food, and some even served as preservatives. Fragrant food due to spices directly indicated prosperity. There are interesting stories about how spices known today appeared and were used from ancient times.

After the start of the voyage of Columbus, Vasco de Gama initiated his expedition, who dreamed of reaching India. Having traveled a long way, he returned from Indian soil with a valuable cargo – black pepper. With this spice, instead of a specie, a tribute was paid by entire cities, and this kind of payment was accepted with joy. Since then, not a single cuisine of the world can do without this spice.

Indispensable in any kitchen, the onion has been known for 4000 years BC. Onion bundles were found in the sarcophagi of the Egyptian pharaohs. The Romans, without fail, introduced onions into the diet of legionnaires, seeking to strengthen courage and strength. Richard the Lionheart kept an onion around his neck, and the Saracens demanded the bow as a ransom for every franc. To get the latest stories, install our app here


The leaders of the competitions were crowned with a laurel wreath in honor of the god Apollo. So the bay leaf also came to the cuisines of the world from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Weaving wreaths, workers paid attention to the pleasant aroma from their hands. Having tried to add laurel to food, they came to an unprecedented delight.

Returning from Greece to Rome, Nero demanded to pour saffron water on the road so that the pleasant aroma clogged the unpleasant odors that irritated his delicate sense of smell. Saffron was very expensive, exceeding 15 times the cost of black pepper. And the rich man at that time was not just called the “pepper bag”. To get 1 kg of saffron powder, 15,000 flowers had to be picked by hand. Moreover, the spice was not the flowers themselves, but the pollen covering their stigmas.

Another expensive spice was considered to be cloves – the inflorescences of the clove tree. In India, Indonesia, China, dried cloves were used long before the present era. Chinese dignitaries had to chew clove inflorescences during an audience with the emperor himself, so as not to defile the lord with bad breath. The ancient Greeks and Romans got cloves overland from India. But when Rome fell, Europe had to forget about cloves for many centuries – until the very start of the Crusades. In addition, prunes (“Damascus plums”), raisins (Damascus grapes), nutmeg, and ginger came to Europe from the East.

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Monopolization of the market and the end of the golden “spicy era”

The huge profits from the spice trade fueled trade wars and the greed of European monopolists. In addition, this situation caused severe exploitation among the people from the colonies, who were not lucky enough to be born in the lands of spices. After the same Portuguese established the production of cloves and nutmeg on two islands, they banned the cultivation of these spices elsewhere.

Punitive detachments were created to monitor the execution of the instructions of the monopolies. And the British and French, trying to maintain the highest cost of spices, simply burned the stocks of competitors. In pursuit of super-profits, the Europeans committed any crimes.

Prices for spices began to fall only towards the end of the 18th century. This product began to hit the tables of ordinary Europeans. The reason for this was the active development of sea trade routes, which led to the fall of spicy monopolies.

By the early 19th century, the Americans had entered the international spice trade. Their experience began with the production of black pepper with its subsequent sale at a more democratic cost. After that, prices for pepper began to fall actively around the world. Soon the other elite spices also lost their value.

Mankind has learned to grow some spices on its own. And when, at the very beginning of the 20th century, artificial essences came into widespread culinary use, the food industry processes no longer needed the more expensive original ingredients, and so ended the era of spices, which for so long were valued more than gold.

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