Herbs and Spices Throughout History
More to Spices than Flavor
Spices, and the herbs they come from, have been flavoring our food for centuries.They are what makes our favorite dishes so appealing. But spices have a history of doing much more than adding life to bland foods. They were used in religious rituals, for medicinal purposes, and to protect the hearth and home. Countries fought over access to and monopoly of certain spices like cinnamon and nutmeg when they were rare commodities.
Almost every country has its own uses and lore regarding those spices most common to them. Here are a few you might not have known about your favorite spices.
Allspice: Called allspice by early explorers because of its clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg aroma, it's often found in baked goods. However, because of its warming effect on the body, allspice is an ingredient even today in men’s cosmetics. And, in the Napoleanic war, Russians put allspice in their boots to keep their feet warm.
Basil: The name basil means royal and this herb was given sacred status in many cultures. A pot of basil on the patio table was thought to ward off mosquitoes and other insects. Traditionally given as good luck to new homeowners, basil was considered an ideal house-warming gift because it blessed the home and heart.
Cilantro: Originating in the Mediterranean over five thousand years ago, cilantro is the green leaf of the coriander plant. Commonly thought to be an aphrodisiac, it was an essential element of early love potions.
Cumin seeds and Cloves
Clove: Clove is the dried bud of an evergreen clove tree. Folklore says that sucking on two whole cloves chases away the desire for alcohol, and in the Middle Ages, clove was used as a breath freshener.Because of clove's anesthetic quality, it was and still is used to soothe tooth aches.
Cumin: Cumin has been around since the Pyramids. Revered as a symbol of love and fidelity by many cultures, cumin was carried in the pockets of wedding guests in the Middle Ages as a blessing for the couple. Peppery and staunch, cumin has been used to age and smoke cheeses and for a number of medicinal purposes including reducing nausea and morning sickness.
Dill: Believed to have a soothing and calming effect in days gone by, dill was administered as a sedative and to curb the appetite. It was even thought to protect against evil. Many believed that dill brought harmony to the home and kitchen, and, in Germany, dill was attached to the wedding gown to guarantee a happy peaceful marriage.
Garlic Powder: Considered the noblest onion in Europe, garlic was used as a charm in classical and medieval times. According to folklore, garlic protected against evil, specifically vampires. In Arab legend, garlic grew from the devil’s footprint as he left the Garden of Eden. Considered a cure-all herb for the entire body, garlic was widely employed medicinally.
Lavender: A key spice in Herbes de Provence, lavender was also considered popular by Renaissance people for medicinal and religious reasons. Queen Elizabeth I was said to be fond of lavender tea which she believed cured her migraines. The scent of lavender was used to perfume love letters and has long been believed to help attract the opposite sex.
Mint: Mint represented hospitality and wisdom, and the Greeks and Romans rubbed their tables with the fragrant herb before guests arrived. Considered a general pick-me-up, mint was used to soothe colds and fevers throughout the centuries.
Mustard: Various forms of mustard have been popular over the centuries, and Louis XI traveled with his own mustard pot in case his hosts had none. A vigorous healer, mustard oil is potent enough to blister skin and often was used in powerful poultices.
Nutmeg: Nutmeg comes from the fruit kernel of the nutmeg tree. In the Middle-Ages, people carried whole nutmeg and a small silver grater with them to add sparkle to food wherever they were. Thought to have magical powers, nutmeg was made into charms and amulets to ward off all kinds of danger and evil. It was even believed to attract admirers if tucked under the left armpit before a social event.
Oregano: Grown on the hillsides of Greece, oregano symbolized joy and happiness to the Greeks and means “mountain joy”. Believed to be created by the God Venus to add sweetest and delight to food, it is a common element in Greek cuisine. In traditional Greek wedding ceremonies, brides and grooms wore wreaths of oregano on their heads to represent a happy and fulfilling union.
Parsley: In Ancient Greece, parsley was considered sacred and virtuous and was placed on the heads of victors in athletic contests. Used to honor the dead, it was woven into funeral wreaths and sprinkled into graves. Full of chlorophyll, parsley also served as a natural breath freshener
Pepper (Black): Pepper comes from the fruit or peppercorn of the pepper plant. Pepper at one time determined a man’s worth. It was more valuable than gold and used to pay rent and ransoms, to bribe officials and lure voters to the polls, to pay taxes and to honor gods. In the 16th century, dock workers were required to wear clothes with no pockets or cuffs so that peppercorns couldn’t be stolen, starting a new fashion trend. And the demand and desire for pepper is the main reason early explorers, like Columbus, set off to explore the world.
Rosemary: A vigorously growing rosemary bush outside the home signified that a woman was the head of the household. Rosemary was believed to stimulate and enhance memory, and in ancient Greece, students put a sprig in their hair when studying for exams. Rosemary symbolizes remembrance, friendship and love and, at one time, was part of almost every wedding ceremony. Tapping a sprig of rosemary against the finger of a loved one was thought to secure their affection.
Sage: Dusty green sage was associated with longevity and immortality and its name means to be saved. Sage is one of the few spices that retains its flavor no matter how long it is cooked. Sage tea was once more sought after than green tea. American Indians viewed sage as a medicine and used it in salves and healing ceremonies.
Thyme: Thyme symbolized courage and sacrifice, and Greeks believed that to smell of thyme was a sincere complement meaning gracefulness. Gardeners once set aside a patch of thyme in their gardens for fairies, rumored to make their home in the ground cover. Thyme was thought to have a psychological impact and that pillows stuffed with thyme relieved melancholy and nightmares—beer and thyme chased away shyness. One legend reports it was mixed with hay for a bed for the Virgin Mary and Christ child.
Turmeric: Used as a condiment and natural dye, turmeric is native to Southeast Asia. Part of Hindu religious rituals, turmeric is used to dye holy robes a deep yellow-orange color.
Benefits of Herbs and Spices
Throughout history, many cultures have found interesting uses for herbs and spices as well as superstitions and folklore. Today, science is beginning to prove that there is truth in many of the purported health benefits that our ancestors knew all along.