Monday, February 02, 2009

The Spice Perspective

The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice looks at history from the perspective of flavor. Author Michael Krondl begins with an unfortunately bland introduction -- from which I basically learned nothing. Luckily, I decided to keep reading, and when he began the real deal, it was much better.

Venice was his first city. He begins by describing a contemporary chef who tries to reproduce historical tastes from the age of great power, when Venice owned the spice trade -- and when meals throughout Europe were far spicier even than most modern meals.

As the book proceeds, we learn a great deal about the political, military, commercial, medical, and culinary factors that created the diet of Europeans in the Early Modern age and more recently. What's important, to me, is that Krondl is a vivid writer -- at least after his initial boring intro. He portrays the rapacious and genocidal actions of the Dutch (despite their home-base republican government) in colonizing Indonesia, the corporate approach of the Venetians to capitalizing the spice trade with Egypt, and the application of absolute royal power of the Portuguese kings in finding spice routes around Africa. Simultaneously, he's very informative about the role of cooks, cookbooks, doctors, and theories of diet and health, as they developed over time.

The role of religious thought -- from the conversionary aim of Portuguese voyages to the stiff calvinism of the Dutch -- provides background to the motivation of voyages. He compares Portuguese Jesuits' forced conversion of Hindus, cemented by force-feeding them beef with the auto-da-fes in Lisbon where refusal to eat pork condemned converted Jews. (p.151) Later, he points out the role of fleeing Jews transferred skills from Portugal to Amsterdam.

Krondl also effectively describes his own voyages to the three cities and to the places where spice was grown; he interviews modern farmers, spice sellers, and many others. In Amsterdam, he says, you can still detect the smell "of nutmeg and cloves seeping out from the beams when they tear apart former spice depots to renovate them into trendy lofts." (p. 192) "At the edge of the Nieuwemarkt, you can still detect a hint of spice in the air in an old house that leans gently towrads the Kloveniersburgwal Canal, as if tired out by standing here so long." (p. 237)

Throughout the book, Krondl compares modern, medieval, and renaissance taste in spice for food. Pleasant reading.

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