In 1519 when Magellan left Seville to find a route to the Spice Islands, he set out with 5 ships and more than 250 men. Three years later, after circumnavigating the globe, only one ship carrying 18 men made it back to Spain. Magellan himself was not among them, having been killed in the Philippines after becoming embroiled in a local conflict. Despite the heavy costs of the voyage, the single ship’s cargo of approximately 50 tons of cloves and nutmeg meant the expedition had been a financial success, as cloves and nutmeg were at the time worth more than their weight in gold.
WHERE ARE CLOVES FROM?
Cloves are indigenous to the Maluku Islands in the east of the Indonesian archipelago, the famed Spice Islands. The cloves that are sold commercially are the dried unexpanded flower of the Syzygium aromaticum tree. These days cloves are grown in places like Zanzibar, Madagascar, Mauritius, Bangladesh and around Indonesia. The English word clove comes from the Latin clovus, meaning ‘nail’, because of the nail-like appearance of the dried flowers.
In Indonesia, the smell of kreteks greets you at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta. These crackly, aromatic cigarettes are a favourite of the Indonesian people, and while I’m not a smoker myself, they have become a familiar and somewhat welcoming scent on my visits back to the city where I grew up. About 40% of the ingredients in the cigarette is cloves mixed with other spices. Their popularity in Indonesia is so great they have to import supplies of clove to supplement the locally grown supply.
Like with a lot of the spices we use today, the history of cloves goes back several millennia. Cloves are mentioned in the Hindu epic the Ramayana, written in the 4th or 5th century B.C.E. The ancient Chinese were also fans of the spice, and in the 7th century C.E., those wishing an audience with the emperor were advised to keep cloves in their mouths, lest they offend the emperor with their bad breath!
The ancient Romans had a fondness for them too, and Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History written in the first century C.E., recommends their use in perfume.
An Arabic trader writing in about 1000 C.E. believed that the fruit of the clove tree was ‘sold by genies’. Sailors wishing to trade for cloves, he explained, would place their merchandise on the shore of the mysterious island, go back to their ships, and the next morning would find piles of cloves next to where they had left their goods.
This tells of a spice trade that spanned from the small Spice Islands of Indonesia, through China, all the way to the Mediterranean and beyond. One of the main reasons for the spice trade was the use of spices in the preserving of meat, and cloves were considered vital for this purpose in Europe to at least the late 17th century.
After Magellan’s fateful trip to the Mulukus in the early 16th century, the European spice trade began to really heat up. The Dutch arrived and wrested control of the Spice Islands from the Spanish and Portuguese. In order to maintain their monopoly on the valuable spice, the Dutch would burn any clove tree they found growing outside their area of control, giving us a clue as to how valuable to them this trade was. A cargo of cloves shipped to Europe could be worth up to 700 times what was paid at the source.
Cloves contain Eugenol, which is an effective local anesthetic, and clove essential oil has been used in traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese dentistry for centuries. I used to know people in Indonesia who would suck on a dried clove to help relieve toothache. They can be used as a carminative, which is something that helps with flatulence, and also to promote healthy digestion.
A study has shown that cloves contain high levels of phenolic compounds, and have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticoagulant properties. Also, there is a study that says that clove oil has been shown to help reduce blood sugar levels in animal trials.
The use of cloves in food was probably spread to Europe during the conquest of Spain by Islamic forces in the 7th century C.E. These days cloves are widely used in Indian cooking, for example as an ingredient in the spice mix garam masala. They are also in a lot of Mexican and Indonesian cooking. In Europe cloves are typically used more in pickles and preserves, and in English cooking, the most familiar use for cloves is as flavouring in traditional apple pies.
Cloves go well with beef and venison, and are a great addition to baked ham.Here’s a simple recipe of Slow-Cooked Silverside with Cinnamon and Cloves for you to try. Enjoy!