Top chef turned food historian Michael Krondl traveled the world while sharing meals and swapping stories with farmers, sailors and foodies like himself all in the name of research for his latest book, The Taste of Conquest — The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice (Ballantine Books. 305 pages, $25.95)...
Here's a review from the Associated Press:
By CARL HARTMAN
India’s Defense Research Laboratory has published a list of its completed humanitarian projects, such as ‘‘Removal of Arsenic From Water.’’ It concludes with the proud item: ‘‘Identified World’s Hottest Chili.’’
‘‘What they plan to do with it is, I’m sure, top secret,’’ comments food historian Michael Krondl at the end of The Taste of Conquest, his book on the history of the spice trade. ‘‘Suffice it to say, it should probably be banned from hand luggage everywhere.’’
Its use in pepper spray has been suggested. So have eye protection and a breath mask for anyone grinding it. Though Krondl sees the spread of spices in western Europe centuries ago as the origin of 21st-century globalization, he notes that the international market goes further back into ancient history.
When Roman Emperor Nero murdered his wife, Poppaea, he used a year’s supply of cinnamon to bury her. Joseph’s brothers sold him to traders carrying what the King James Bible calls ‘‘spicery’’ from Jordan to Egypt. It doesn’t say which spices, but archaeologists have found peppercorns stuffed up the nose of a Pharaoh’s mummy.
The book carries its main story back only a thousand years to the Crusaders. Affluent nobles from western Europe got a taste for highly spiced food when they invaded the Middle East. It argues against the idea that spices were wanted in the West to preserve food, because the rich could afford to eat fresh meat and use spices; the poor could not.
The really hot stuff came later.
Venetians, whose merchant fleet carried many of the Crusaders across the Mediterranean, set up the first near-monopoly in the west European spice trade. Venice lay squarely on the land route that brought spices from southeast Asia to Europe. The Germans mined silver to buy it.
‘‘As the Germans sent silver down the Brenner Pass, the merchants of Venice sent pepper-laden mules back,’’ Krondl writes. ‘‘Though Venice wouldn’t be able to monopolize the spice trade until the early 1400s, in the interim she was clearly the leader and she meant to keep it that way.’’
Countering a perceived threat, the Venetians, as Krondl tells the story, instead of heading straight for the Holy Land, took advantage of the Fourth Crusade to organize a destructive attack and looting of Byzantium. Today the city is Istanbul, but then it was still the capital not of Islam but of the fellow-Christian Byzantine empire.
Aggressive seamanship and price cutting by the Portuguese and Dutch ended the Venetian monopoly.
Six years after the first voyage of Columbus, a king sent 28-year-old Vasco da Gama from Lisbon in the opposite direction around Africa to India. He reached what was to become Goa, which Portugal held until 1961. He got back to Lisbon with the precious knowledge that a 100-pound bag of pepper that sold for 16 ducats in Venice could be had for two ducats in Goa.
‘‘My country is rich in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper and precious stones,’’ Krondl quotes the local ruler as telling Gama. ‘‘That which I ask of you in exchange is gold, silver, coals and scarlet cloth.’’
A century later came the Dutch East India Company, often called the first modern limited liability corporation. ‘‘The Dutch had a knack for getting people to cooperate,’’ Krondl says.
‘‘It was a system that would be familiar to any Mafioso working the garbage-collection business in Lower Manhattan. Ships bristling with guns anchored a stone’s throw from the headmen’s villages (or royal palaces) and offered protection in exchange for the right to buy up all the local spice crop at prices set by the company.’’
Dutch rule over Indonesia, from where much of the spices came, ended when Indonesians on a five-year war for independence in 1950. By that time, much of the world’s spice trade was in British hands.
Today McCormick & Company, Inc., of Sparks, Md., claims to be the world’s biggest spice firm. Starting as a vendor of flavored syrups in a Baltimore basement, it now has more than a dozen divisions from China to Mexico