Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 8, 2022
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Mangia Bene

    Frankincense and myrrh, incense and cinnabar, cinnamon and cassia, and all the spices we associate with long ago times, have traditionally been thought of as arriving in the Mediterranean from the East. The “spices of Araby” found their way to the Mediterranean, the story goes, from the Hadhramaut in the southwestern portion of the Arabian peninsula in a trade controlled by Meccan traders. The spices arrived in Arabia from the Orient or East Africa before continuing their journey north to their terminus in Syria and Egypt, where they were sold to European traders. These Arab traders were said to be in an excellent location and they kept the origin of these spices secret so they could protect their monopoly from their Mediterranean customers. By the seventh century A.D. the trade declined and it was only to revive in the medieval era.

    The story of the spices of Araby, told by every food writer, is an exciting story, but is completely untrue. After the publication of the controversial, but compelling, argument made in Patricia Crone’s Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, published in 1987 by Princeton University Press, we must rethink the spice story. Mecca, which is traditionally described as the center of a far-flung trading empire at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, was not in an “excellent location.” It was not at the crossroads of trade, but was off the beaten track. In fact, Crone claims, the Meccans did not trade in incense, spices, and other luxury goods. Their trade was much humbler: clothing and leather, and they could not have founded a commercial empire of international dimensions based on clothing. Arabia is “indelibly associated with the spice trade in the minds of every educated person,” and, as the traditional story goes, spices had traded through Arabia for 1,500 to 2,500 years, coming to an end by the time the Arabs conquered the Middle East. Crone says all this is untrue. Some of the famous spices described in antiquity, such as cinnamon and cassia, thought to have come from the East, were not the cinnamon and cassia we know today. It is clear from the classical descriptions of these plants by Theophrastus and Pliny that the plants in question belonged to a genus quite different from that of Cinnamomum. They are, in fact, a xerophilous shrub of the kind that proliferates in the thorn- woodlands of the regions that border the Red Sea. The cinnamon and cassia known in antiquity were products native to Arabia and East Africa and did not come from the East. This famous “spice route” that went from south Arabia to the Mediterranean was never used for foreign spices but simply for local Arabian aromatics, clothing, and leather.

    The Greco-Roman world imported many Arabian spices in a trade that was quite large. But by the sixth century hardly any spices remained on the market. Six of the most heavily traded spices--frankincense, myrrh, cancamum, tarum, labdanum, and sweet rush--had gone out of fashion, disappeared altogether, or came from within the Greco-Roman world. Two others, aloe and cinnabar, were imported by sea. Cinnamon and cassia, and calamus, were now obtained exclusively from East Africa. One spice, cardamomum, has an unsure identity because it clearly is not the cardamom we know today, and two cannot be identified--bdellium and comacum. Not one of these spices is associated with Meccan trade items. The spice trade dwindled to nothing by the seventh century, and it would not be for another five hundred years before the spice trade would rise again into a veritable orgy.

   There were three reasons for the rise of the medieval Mediterranean spice trade. First, the monotony of a lifetime of consuming bread, more bread, and gruel resulted in a powerful desire to, literally, spice up the food. Even today it is people in the poorest countries of the Third World who are most likely to use spices in their food. Second, there was the need for the emerging new class of bourgeoisie to culturally demonstrate its power and superiority, which it did through the purchase of luxury items like spices, used in foods, medicines, and ointments. Third, there was the insatiable desire for gold and silver among the Mediterranean’s trading partners in the East, the Chinese and Indians.