Eastern promise

Spice: the history of a temptation

Jack Turner <em>HarperCollins, 409pp, £25</em>

ISBN 000257067

While grating some into a cake mixture or a dish of spinach, I have often thought that nutmegs, with their dull brown ridging, looked as though they were carved out of wood. What I did not know, until I read Jack Turner's stimulating history of spice, was that, sometimes, they really were: "Legend has it that unscrupulous spice traders of Connecticut conned unwitting customers by whittling counterfeit 'nutmegs' from worthless pieces of wood, whence the nickname the 'Nutmeg State'." Turner further notes that the term "wooden nutmeg" became "a metaphor for the fraudulent or ersatz". A wooden nutmeg covered any kind of deception - including, for example, an election tainted by political tricks and dubious ballots. Perhaps, since the last US presidential election, it should be Florida and not Connecticut that we refer to as the Nutmeg State - except that the old meaning has become as obsolete as a hanging chad.

These days you could probably sell ornamental wooden nutmegs for a fortune in the toyshops of Notting Hill, while whole jam jars full of real nutmegs sell for a pittance in health-food shops. But such - Turner would argue - is the story of spices. The cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper that were once fought for and obsessed over have become cheapened and banal. Spices have "lost their air of dangerous attraction", in the pharmacy and boudoir as well as in the kitchen. There was once a time when cinnamon oil was "the absolute top of the line" in perfumery, whereas now it is "just one ingredient among thousands". The point of Turner's book is to capture some of the moments when spices seemed most magical and important, when the saffron in Saffron Walden really meant something.

Spice is stuffed with memorable details, such as that of the pharaoh Ramses II being embalmed (in 1224BC) with two Indian peppercorns shoved up his nostrils. Turner writes with pace and intelligence and packages his anecdotes with catchy headings. "St Bernard's Family Tiff", for example, recounts St Bernard of Clairvaux's monkish objections to spiciness. Bernard, the 12th-century ascetic and crusader, feared that his cousin Robert would be corrupted at the monastery of Cluny by "pepper, ginger, cumin, sage and a thousand such types of seasonings, which delight the palate, but inflame the libido". In the opposite vein, "How to Make a Small Penis Splendid" is about the Arab hope in the 15th century that gingery unguents could do exactly that.

As its subtitle suggests, Spice does not attempt to provide a comprehensive history of the spice trade. Nor is it primarily about discovery. Turner uses early chapters to cover his bases with Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan and the "bloody, briny" battles between the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch over the Spice Islands (the Moluccas), yet his real interests lie not with exploration but with "desire" - the "gilded fantasies" that Europeans constructed about spices of the east. Spices were the stuff of paradise: expensive, unattainable, delicious. In one version of "The Land of Cockayne", the streets were paved with ginger, the gardens filled with astonishing trees growing galangal, mace, cinnamon and cloves, and "even the dogs shat nutmegs".

Given that spices were so costly and desired, it is positively perverse to suppose, as many still do, that the spices in medieval cookery were used mainly to disguise the taste of rotting meat. Turner rightly refutes this "old and indestructible myth". "Spices were expensive," he writes, "and those with the money would generally have been able to acquire at least half-decent meat at a fraction of the cost of spices: why waste good, expensive spices on poor, cheap meat?"

Today, it would be the other way round. Elegant cooks would not want to waste expensive meat by smothering it in cheap spices. If you had a perfect poulet de Bresse or some magnificent turbot on your hands - chance would be a fine thing - you would surely not choose to adorn it with cinnamon and cloves. You would most likely cook it just as it is, with only salt and olive oil and lemon or herbs for flavouring. In doing so, you would be following the culinary principles that took hold over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries: the nouvelle cuisine of France and the cookery of Hannah Glasse in England. According to this new, pared-down style, the use of spices suddenly seemed vulgar and overdone. Most spices were too affordable. The "Spice Age", argues Turner, had come to an end.

Or had it? Ultimately, Turner seems a little confused about what his thesis should be. Have spices lost their importance or haven't they? Viewed through his cultural lens, perhaps they have. We have indeed forgotten the spice-starved spirit of the Song of Songs, that yearning for "spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon". However, an economic or social history of spices would look different. "In the modern world," writes Turner in his conclusion, "it tends to be the poor, not the rich, who eat spices." Another historian might have taken this fascinating remark as a starting point rather than an ending.

Bee Wilson's The Hive is published by John Murray (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Can Islam change?