Spices: A Luxury Product

Learn about the importance of spices, and how they motivated impossible maritime voyages to undiscovered lands.

By Real Academia de Gastronomía

Real Academia de Gastronomía

SpicesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Spices were the first food products in history capable of motivating men to embark on near impossible maritime voyages to undiscovered lands.

They were used in cooking to season food, but also in perfumes and pharmacology. They were even burned to scent homes, and in funeral ceremonies.

Eastern marketReal Academia de Gastronomía

It is difficult to imagine now what they meant to the ancient world.

On the one hand, they were considered highly valuable in elite cooking, associated with extravagant, exquisite gastronomy.

On the other hand, and precisely for this reason, they were a real incentive for the routes to discovering new territories for Europe.

Fragment of a Fresco Panel with a Meal Preparation (A.D. 1–79) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Spices are historically very important, and in the ancient world they were a gastronomic ritual.

The Romans held them in very high esteem, and they were associated with social power, on tables of standing, for the elites who could afford them.

They were expensive and a real luxury product.

Mapa HispaniaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Spices are historically very important, and in the ancient world they were a gastronomic ritual.

The Romans held them in very high esteem, and they were associated with social power, on tables of standing, for the elites who could afford them.

They were expensive and a real luxury product.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1588) by Abraham OrteliusOriginal Source: The Library of Congress

Spices originated far away from the regions where they were in demand, in the Mediterranean and across Europe. They came from tropical climates, in areas of high humidity and high temperatures, and were very expensive to transport.

In the Pacific (2005 - Nao Victoria`s first sailing around the world) by Nao Victoria FoundationNao Victoria Foundation

However, they were small in volume, and they were light. The price at source was very low, but they could be sold at the same price as gold in their destinations.

This justified the long journey, and the cost of the caravans crossing inhospitable territories.

The spice trade was big business.

Basil, sage, dill and thyme herbsReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Mediterranean had a long tradition of using aromatic plants in their cookery.
These included: bay (laurus nobilis), thyme (species of thymus), rosemary (salvia rosmarinus), garlic (allium sativum), onion (allium cepa), bastard balm (melittis melissophyllum), starflower (borago officinalis), capers (capparis spinosa), sage (salvia officinalis), cilantro (coriandrum sativum), cumin (cuminum cyminum), fennel (foeniculum vulgare), fenugreek (trigonella foenum-graecum), lavender (species of lavandula), marigold (caléndula officinalis), oregano (origanum vulgare), mastic (pistacia lentiscus), myrtle (myrtus communis), parsley (petroselinum crispum), poppy seed (varieties of papaver), mint (varieties of mentha), and arugula (eruca sativa).

All of these plants, when used in cookery, are known as condiments.

SpicesReal Academia de Gastronomía

The difference between spices and aromatic herbs are their origin.

Plants used to season food that come from outside of the Mediterranean are spices.
According to the Tesoro de Covarrubias dictionary: Spices are the drugs from the Indies, with which we add taste and flavor to stews, for example cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and pepper … that add heat.

This explanation is key to differentiating condiments and spices.

SpicesReal Academia de Gastronomía

In classical times, the people of the Mediterranean were accustomed to using aromatic plants grown locally. That is why they appreciated the new flavors offered by spices.

These were products with powerful aromas, which could transform the dishes they were added to, offering an exotic, complex flavor, different from what they were used to. However, it was a flavor they were undoubtedly ready for.

A Roman Feast (late 19th century) by Roberto BompianiThe J. Paul Getty Museum

All these flavors reshaped Roman cookery, and led to significant changes in the tastes of the Mediterranean people.

The elites wanted more and more varied spices, and lots of them. They definitively transformed the traditional taste of upper-class Roman cooking.

Spices were introduced via high-end gastronomy, which made use of dishes, products, presentations, and the surroundings of the banquet to express the social power of the select groups who could enjoy these feasts.

Cinnamon sticksReal Academia de Gastronomía

The spices most commonly used in Roman times also played an important part, and these included: cinnamon (cinnamomum verum), Indian long pepper (piper longum) and black pepper (piper nigrum), Chinese cassia (cinnamomum cassia), ginger (zingiber officinale), and cardamom (varieties of amomum).

The Spice Shop (1637) by Paolo Antonio BarbieriOriginal Source: Palazzo Comunale

Thanks to spices, in the 1st century AD a new cuisine was established, and was immediately popular.

The cuisine was revolutionary: different, very elaborate, and complex. It ended up becoming classic Roman cookery, and one of its distinctive features was the use of spices.

It was such a powerful gastronomy, and in many ways was a legacy, vision, and inspiration for the medieval courts all over Europe.

SpicesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Let's set the record straight: spices were not used in Roman times to mask rotten meat.

Their supplies were of very high quality, routes of communication were very efficient, and spices were very expensive, so this myth does not stand up to scrutiny.

Spices were used to season haute cuisine dishes, which used the most exquisite delicacies, and not to camouflage cheap, low-quality produce.

Banquet Given by the King to the New Knights (1633) by Abraham BosseNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

In Europe, in the Middle Ages, a very different type of cookery from that of the Romans appeared, although the traditional cuisine of Rome continued to be a highly regarded gastronomic model.

Spices continued to be used by the aristocracy, and their consumption was a sign of wealth and power.

Spices on the marketReal Academia de Gastronomía

In reality, for centuries spices had symbolized a prestigious urban lifestyle, compared with the rustic, rural class.

On the other hand, rich traders and spice merchants gave financial support to the medieval monarchies, which strengthened their view of spices as a high-status product.

Spices were so expensive that commoners were unable to afford them, so they would falsify and imitate them using many different kinds of products.

Tondal Suffers a Seizure at Dinner (1475) by Simon MarmionThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Crusades marked the start of a crisis in the spice trade, shattering the traditional equilibrium between Arab and Venetian traders.

Venice was the center of the spice trade between Europe and the east, and was at the mercy of the Ottoman Turks' invasion. That was the point at which the Mediterranean was divided between the east and the west.

This circumstance led to the development of routes and voyages in search of spices, which ended happily with Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano's circumnavigation of the world.

The Nao VictoriaNao Victoria Foundation

The journey undertaken by these sailors was arduous.

In Patagonia, the expeditionaries realized that they had been swindled by the men loading their provisions, and they were not carrying enough supplies for such a long voyage.

They had to ration their food, and sacrifice many basic needs. They even ended up with scurvy. Little by little, ships were lost, and many sailors died.

The Pacific Ocean (1589) by Abraham OrteliusFundación Elkano

Their arrival in America, and later to the Pacific islands, helped to meet their needs.

In Brazil, they made bread rolls with sago or tapioca, and in Cape Horn they stocked up on seals, having caught a huge quantity.

Anything that could be eaten was good for them.

Coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) (1887) by Franz Eugen KöhlerFundación Elkano

When they reached the Pacific, they discovered a huge variety of new foods, and in many of the small settlements they were able to eat high-quality local fish, coconut oil, and seseli (herbaceous perennial plant).

There were also coconuts, rice, bananas, sugar cane, and a multitude of fruits. There were even alcoholic beverages made from coconut and rice-based liquor.

Local chiefs would celebrate them with extensive banquets, each in their own style.

Rice fields in the AlbuferaReal Academia de Gastronomía

The natives would usually honor their arrival with dishes such as pork stews and local wine, fish in sauce, rice stews, rice cakes, and maize cooked in banana leaves.

They could even use cooked and flattened rice as bread, which was the food they missed the most.

Trapped in calm (2005 - Nao Victoria`s first sailing around the world) by Nao Victoria FoundationNao Victoria Foundation

And they reached their goal.

Finally, on December 21, 1521, they set sail from the Maluku Islands (Moluccas) with a ship loaded with spices; the objective of their voyage.

They had opened up a market that would change western gastronomy forever. Soon, spices would be available to everyone.

Portolan atlas dedicated to Hieronymus Ruffault, abbot of Saint Vaast and Saint Adrian (1544) by Battista AgneseOriginal Source: Library of Congress

Following the successful circumnavigation of the world, spices arrived in abundance.

The trade route began working very efficiently, which shifted the significance that spices had held both in ancient and medieval times.

As demand grew at an extraordinary rate, so too did cultivation, leading to an abundance and ease of acquisition of spices in these destinations.

Spice store in MarrakechReal Academia de Gastronomía

Conversely, this ease of access meant that they lost some of their attraction for the upper classes, now that they were an ingredient in everyday use rather than reserved for special occasions.

As they became more popular, they were used less in haute cuisine of the modern age, having become a favored group of ingredients in everyday use. And so the traditional concept of them representing elite cookery was lost.

SpicesReal Academia de Gastronomía

The traditional balance between the classical world and medieval cookery had been shattered, and changes in food habits revealed the beginnings of a different world emerging.

In both periods but in different ways, spices played, and would continue to play, a significant albeit distinct role in manifesting the cultural changes that occurred during these new historical periods.

Credits: Story

Text: Almudena Villegas Becerril, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Acknowledgements: Lourdes Plana, President of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, Director of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Carmen Simón, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy

This exhibition is part of the First Voyage Around the World project.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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