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Exploring The Flavors of Christmas: Cloves

Updated on July 31, 2017
mulled wine
mulled wine

The "Christmas" Spice

Baked ham. Pumpkin pie. Mulled wine. Warm, indulgent, comfort foods. What unites them all? Obviously, they are foods that we eat during the Christmas holidays.

And…they all contain cloves—that super-strong, hot-sweet spice.

What Are Cloves?

Cloves are the fruit of unopened flower buds of a tropical evergreen. The tree (Syzygium aromaticum) is native to Indonesia, but today is grown in other places including Sumatra, India, Brazil, Jamaica, and the West Indies. It reaches heights of at least 30 feet, and produces white bell-shaped flowers which turn pink as they mature. The flower buds are hand-picked just before the flowers open. These harvested buds are then sun dried, which turns then to a dark brown.

One tree can yield up to 40 pounds of dried cloves! The name given this spice comes from the Latin word “clavus,” meaning nail, and that definitely describes its shape.

Why Is This Hot Spice so "Hot"?

Why is it that the use of cloves seems to reach a frenzied peak during the holidays?

Perhaps the phenomenon traces back to the days when all spices were scarce—and expensive—in Europe. Back then, cloves were a sign of indulgence, a show of wealth. Or a rare prize, reserved for special occasions, like Christmas.

Indeed, cloves provide a flavor boost to rich, hearty winter foods, so it’s no wonder that they have become the “Christmas spice." They have a warm, bold aroma and a sharp, almost hot flavor which is tempered by cooking.

Cloves can be purchased ground or whole to flavor breads, cakes, and cookies, and traditionally wind up in wassail bowls, hot mulled cider, fruitcakes, plum pudding, mincemeat pie, and more.

Greed, Corruption, Sorrow, and Slaughter

Like many spices, the history of cloves goes back many centuries. It is thought that the Chinese were the first to discover the Indonesian islands called the Moluccas. They returned home with cloves, which were used in pharmaceuticals, and as a breath freshener. Legend tells that one was required to chew cloves prior to having audience with the Emperor, lest he be offended with bad breath.

Arab traders found the Moluccas and centuries later the ships of Magellan embarked on a trip around the world, finding the Moluccas enroute. Magellan's fleet returned to Spain in 1522, loaded with cloves and nutmeg; the value of the cargo supported the cost of the voyage many times over.

A markerMoluccas Islands, Indonesia -
Moluccas, Indonesia
get directions

The quest for cloves is one of those events that have shaped world history; they spurred expeditions, created monopolies, generated fantastic wealth, and created great suffering.

Cloves were in big demand in Europe to preserve meat, and gross
profit margins for those who bought it supposedly could reach
2,000%. This made the trade worth fighting over, and several
European nations did just that. The Portuguese established the first
monopoly, but were pushed out in 1605 by Dutch explorers who discovered their own route to the Moluccas Islands.

In their zeal to control the clove industry, lords of the Dutch East India Company destroyed clove trees growing anywhere outside of their control. Natives of the Molucca Islands believed that they had a spiritual connection with the clove trees; it was part of their tradition to plant one tree for each child born, and the fate of the child was then linked to the life (and death) of the tree. In 1816 the natives revolted against the Dutch in a bloody battle.

One might say that Divine providence stepped in. We now know that decades earlier a French missionary had managed to smuggle clove seeds to Zanzibar and Mauritius. With that, world production of clove spice rose—and with the increase in supply prices plummeted. Eventually the cost of wars, blockades, and battles with the native population became too costly; the 200-year monopoly of the clove spice trade ended in bankruptcy for the East India Company.

The rest, as they say, is history.


Cloves can be used in every part of a menu: beverage, appetizer, main dish, side, or dessert. Here are some suggestions.


Cinnamon Clove Syrup

This spicy syrup adds a bit of heat to cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks alike, or drizzle over ice cream. Keeps stored in the refrigerator for several weeks.

Yield – About 1 cup

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved. Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. Allow to cool and then strain to remove the whole spices.

Pour the syrup into a glass container with a secure cover. Keep refrigerated.


Pumpkin spice scones

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • 6 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin puree (not canned pumpkin pie filling)
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 pinch each of nutmeg, ginger, and cloves
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. In large mixing bowl whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger.
  4. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
  5. In a separate bowl, mix together the pumpkin, milk, and egg. Add the pumpkin mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix until just combined.
  6. Pat the dough out on a lightly floured surface to form a rectangle that is roughly 4 inches by 12 inches. Cut the dough into thirds to form three 4 inch by 4 inch squares, then cut an X in each of the squares to form 4 triangular scones.
  7. Move the scones to the prepared baking sheet and bake 14-16 minutes, or until lightly browned on the bottom. Remove from the oven and let cool.

While the scones are cooling, make the spiced glaze. Whisk together the powdered sugar, milk, and spices. Drizzle the spiced glaze over the scones.

Smoked ginger chicken with cloves
Smoked ginger chicken with cloves | Source

How to Use Cloves

There is a common expression--"a little says a lot." That is certainly the case with cloves. Measure carefully when adding cloves to baked goods. Whole cloves are used in many recipes, but please be sure to remove before serving.

© 2015 Linda Lum


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    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

      RTalloni - Hot spiced punch sounds wonderful--it is very cold and drizzly where I live. Hot punch, cozy fireplace, and warm lap kitty sound like just what the doctor ordered.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 2 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks for this interesting info. With cloves on my mind I'm getting ready to shop for my annual hot fruit punch ingredients--a wassail styled drink for our neighborhood caroling crowd. Maybe I'll do your yum scones for that event, or on second thought, maybe just for our own little Christmas morning… :)

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Flourish - Oh, the past is very dark and greedy indeed. I am working on a hub about nutmeg which has a similar theme.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      Great combination of history and recipes. I didn't know about the dark greedy past!

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Devika (DDE) - Thank you for stopping by. I think this is your first visit to my page. I am glad that you enjoyed this hub. I write mostly about food and food history--and always include a few recipes.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Awesome choice of hub! I prefer to use cloves in cooking and in pickles.

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Ah Bill, I know that you were a teacher. What a kind comment from you. Thank you my friend.

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Venkatachari - Thank you for your kind words. Cloves do give us a feeling of warmth. I think that is why they are so popular when the weather turns cold.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Reading your hubs is like going to school and being rewarded with a nice treat after the lesson. Great read, Linda!

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Peachpurple - Yes you are correct. I am working on a hub on curries and am sure that cloves will be included.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      Spices are commonly used in curries in asia countries

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very much interesting and rich information about cloves. We use these cloves in many recipes here and enjoy the taste. Particularly winter season is great for eating cloves as they keep us warm. I liked crushing and swallowing the cloves with my teeth. But, now, my teeth are very weak and have to remove them while eating.

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Hi Linnea - I looked at your hubs, and you are (obviously) interested in history. I'm so glad that you enjoyed my story about cloves. Please let me know if you use any of the recipes. I love food and sharing food lore and recipes.

    • Linnea Lewis profile image

      Linnea Lewis 2 years ago from South Carolina, USA

      What an interesting history cloves have..Thank you for this wonderful hub, I enjoyed it.