Friday, September 20, 2013

Following a Clove

Syzygium aromaticum, the clove plant
Cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, nutmeg -- spices from the east -- once sold for enormous prices; possession and use of spices was a status symbol for medieval men and women who could afford them. From ancient times Europeans imported Asian spice via land and water. Prior to the fifteenth century Europeans had little or no idea of where these spices grew or what kind of plants and climates produced them.

"Spices as a link to Paradise, and the vision of Paradise as a real place somewhere in the East ... fascinated the medieval imagination," wrote Wolfgang Schivelbusch in Tastes of Paradise. "The exorbitant price of spices ... further enhanced this fascination." (p. 6)

Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom, Dutch Galleon, 1600-1630
During the fifteenth century, European voyagers took a more practical view of the spice trade. They sought new routes to the far east, hoping through conquest and discovery to control trade in spice and other goods, especially gold and silver. As the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch competed to monopolize the spice trade, there was a crossover point where spices were no longer the food of paradise, but became a mundane, though highly valuable, luxury commodity.

Columbus provided Spain with a vast new territory. Magellan showed a new way to get to the supplies of spice. Portuguese voyagers of that era, having found a route around Africa, explored Southeast Asia, discovering that cloves and pepper grew only in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. Cinnamon trees grew more widely, including in Ceylon and the Philippines.

Magellan's Ship
By the mid-1500s, Spain had colonized the Caribbean, Mexico, and parts of South America. Vast quantities of silver from mines in Peru were being minted into pieces of eight -- the new money supply was already changing the economies of the Old World. They transported silver from the now-Spanish mines by ship to the isthmus of Panama, across to a Caribbean port, and then to Spain where they could, among other things, buy spices from the long-established spice trade.

Spain also wanted better access to the products of the far east, but the Dutch and Portuguese dominated trade routes for Southeast Asia, especially the Moluccas. Further, the Spanish settlements in the New World were full of newly-rich Spaniards who wanted the luxuries of East Asia.

Andrés de Urdaneta
In 1565 a navigator named Urdaneta achieved the goal of finding a reliable sailing route for trade from the far east to the colonies of Mexico. Westward winds had blown Magellan and others across the Pacific towards Asia. As hoped by the Spanish authorities who sent him, Urdaneta established a manageable eastward route. This crossing was long and difficult, as the winds from Asia to the Americas required ships to sail far to the north, arriving at the location of the current California town of Mendocino. Here, at the time, no Europeans had explored.

At Urdaneta's suggestion,  a regular shipping route was established between Manila, the Spanish colony in the far east, and Acapulco, which he considered the best port on Mexico's west coast. Large and very seaworthy Spanish galleons were  built to make the annual voyage. The Manila Galleon by William Lytle Schurz, first published 1939, documents the story of these galleons. They began their regular route across the Pacific shortly after Urdaneta's discovery and continued until early in the 19th century. In my story that follows, a small bag of cloves begins in the spice orchards of the Molucca islands, I have used details from Schurz's book, especially concentrating on the situation as it was in the early 1600s.

Imagine how, in the early 1600s, a clove tree in the Molucca Islands produced its crop of dried flower buds. Workers gathered these valuable spices -- which at that time grew nowhere but this obscure set of islands. Small sacks or bundles of cloves were packed in chests and put on small trading boats heading in several directions. Peppercorns and nutmeg along with the cloves probably gave an irresistible aroma to the inside of the sea chest, but it had to be shipped onwards; no treats for the workers!

Once the cloves were packed and laded, the boats delivered their cargo to Manila, then a trading port in the recently acquired Spanish colony of the Philippines, named for the Spanish King Philip. In the harbor also would have been junks from China and Formosa, as it was then called, bringing silks and Ming porcelains for the Spanish trade. Ming China made much use of the Spanish pieces of eight in their commerce, thanks to this trade. Other trading ships delivered cotton cloth from India and other goods from Ceylon, Siam, and Indo-China, as it was then called. Slaves, especially women, were another element of the cargo of the ship, as well as passengers with commercial or government business in the Spanish Empire.

Urdaneta's route had been established for an annual trade in order to consolidate the riches of the East and deliver them across the oceans. Spaniards posted to the new colony of Manila organized goods to be loaded on the scarce and much-desired space in the Galleons. Many individuals had the right to ship one or several chests of goods. The Chinese traders knew how to fill each chest so tightly that more silks could fit than anyone thought possible -- the chests were much heavier than those the Spaniards packed for themselves. And among these goods were the little packet of cloves that had been harvested in the Moluccas.

Spanish Galleon
The longest part of the voyage for the little packet of cloves was from Manila to Mexico. Though the ship's hold contained the most expensive of foodstuffs, spices, the sailors and passengers often came close to starvation -- scurvy affected them on almost every voyage. The authorities knew how much food was needed, but the merchants often arranged to replace the ship's supplies and backup equipment with more money-making cargo. Some ships were lost thanks to such behavior. English and Dutch pirates were also a threat to ships along the west coast of Mexico and Central America, though their interest was more focused on silver and other treasure than on spice.

Like Manila, Acapulco was a major transshipment port where the cargo from the galleons was redistributed and sent onward towards Panama, Mexico City, and eventually across the Caribbean to Spain. When the ship arrived, the first people to board were clandestine boatmen in the dead of night; they took the undeclared cargo that was forbidden or that was avoiding the customs agents. These agents were the next to board, and they checked each chest -- though they didn't look inside, and often the contents were more than declared.

After the officials did their work, they sent word to Mexico City: the ship could be unloaded, and trading was open. Merchants and traders quickly made their way to Acapulco for the huge fair that vastly increased the population of the otherwise rather dull and uneventful port. Traders from Peru offered silver, often outbidding the Mexican merchants.  Mixed-race local Acapulco residents did their best to participate in the buying and selling, then carrying their purchases onward to Puebla, Oxhaca, or mainly to Mexico City. Many of the dealers were purchasing goods to be sent onward to Spain. Mules carried the sea chests across Mexico to Vera Cruz and then onward across the Atlantic. Of course the ship had to return to Manila -- for the return voyage it was loaded with silver pieces of eight from the mines of Peru, chocolate from Mexico, and a small number of other commodities for the Eastern trade.

The Spaniards who ruled Mexico always wanted to buy their share of the rich cargo. Richer people wore the silks and jewels from China; poorer workers wore the plain cotton from India. Chinese dishes and vases decorated tables and homes of wealthy Spaniards. The little packet of cloves, along with many other spices, could have been purchased by one of the locals for consumption in Mexico. Spaniards in Mexico had quickly adopted the new flavors of the New World: allspice, chile peppers, chocolate, vanilla, and combinations of old and new emerged. The chocolate beverages of Aztec nobles tasted good with cinnamon. Medieval spice blends of pepper, cloves, and nutmeg went well with new world turkey. (For more on these influences, see Gran Cocina Latina by Maricel E. Presilla and "The Mexican Kitchen's Islamic Connection" by Rachel Lauden.)

Spice blending traditions had come to Spain with the Arab conquest, as they had come to Europe with Crusaders who tasted Arab food in Jerusalem. Now the spices were coming across the Pacific directly to the New World rather than through the Arab world that had always handled them on the way to European tables.

The legend of the nuns of Puebla who "invented" Mole Poblano, reflects the old-world traditions and new-world luxury, using both chocolate and old-world spice. Thoughtful food writers, such as Maricel E. Presilla in Gran Cocina Latina, however, give no credibility to the idea that these nuns invented the dish because they had nothing else to cook for a visiting bishop. The town of Puebla was definitely a consumer of luxury foods including spices from the East and the best their local sources could supply. Perhaps the little packet of cloves from the Galleon ended up in a convent where the nuns created a spice blend that reflected the traditions of Islamic Spain and Aztec nobility.

A particular group of Spanish inhabitants of Mexico were the New Christians; that is, descendants of Jews who had chosen conversion in 1492 instead of the other alternatives: exile from Spain or death. Persecuted unmercifully by the Inquisition, many of these eventually chose another type of exile in the New World, living as less and less well-informed secret Jews, and still watched carefully by Mexican immigrant inquisitors who looked for signs of reversion to their ancestral religion.

The cuisine of secret Jews in Mexico and Spain attempted to reflect as much of Jewish tradition as they could remember -- and as much as they could include without immediate arrest. A Drizzle of Honey: the Lives and Recipes of Spain's Secret Jews by David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson transforms Inquisition testimony about the guilty food choices of accused secret Jews into recipes that can be followed in a modern kitchen. I looked into this book for some possible food preparations in which the cloves that traveled from the Moluccas to Manila and across the Pacific might have ended up.

Alfajores, a small almond cookie, "are inescapably one of the Andalucian Islamic contributions to Iberian cuisine," writes Gitlitz." Sixteenth century alfajores (which differ from the modern version) were a popular treat among new-Christians in Mexico in the early seventeenth century." A dough of almonds, walnuts, sesame seeds, honey, bread crumbs and eggs was flavored with cinnamon and cloves; teaspon-sized balls of dough, optionally dusted with more cinnamon, were baked into chewy cookies. (p. 275-276)

Note: illustrations (except book cover) are from Wikimedia Commons


Jens Zorn said...

Interesting and informative. I had often been told that the extraordinary value of spices in those pre-refrigeration days arose in large part from their ability to mask the off-flavors of spoiling food. Not much mention of that here, however.

Mae Travels said...

The value of pepper was much too high to waste it on spoiled meat -- it was a luxury! Most food scholars think the theory of covering for rotten meat was not accurate.

~~louise~~ said...

What a wonderful post, Mae. And the research, oh my goodness. Just GREAT!

I have always been fascinated by the routes spices have taken since the beginning of time. I have wonderful book titled the Spice Islands Cookbook which I would love to share one day. I'm going to save this post as a reference.

Thank you so much for sharing, Mae...

P.S. I don't know when you are leaving for the event but I just wanted to say have a wonderful time and thank you again. As luck would have it, I'm not going to be able to make it down to New York. Marion is not feeling well and no one in her family is able to come up. I can't tell you how disappointed I am in both case. Thanks Mae...