As I added a dash of cinnamon powder to my last meal of 2011 – Moussaka I was wondering how the spice primarily found in Ceylon ended up being used in a Greek Dish. As I grounded pepper I wondered how these were responsible for the rise and fall of three great cities which crossed many a seas to take back clove, pepper and a lot of spices from Malabar coast, and islands of South East Asia.
Michael Krondl documents the fascinating tale of how spices travelled across shores, how spices were protected, how spice- economy controlled and managed state economy through the rise and fall of the three great cities of spices in his book The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and fall of the three Great Cities of Spice (Ballantine Books: New York). Michael’s spice trail begins at Venice which prospered till “Vasco Da Gama’s arrival in India rechanneled the flow of Asian seasoning” (pp20). Spices that were loaded on Italian ships included black pepper and long pepper, five kinds of ginger, galingale, zedoary, nutmeg, maces, clove stalks, cloves, three types of cinnamon and cardamom. Michael draws up this list from a list of purchases made by the Venetians in Damascus in early fourteen century. Spices were critical to the state economy of Venice and spices travelled in an army convoy referred to as mudas. Since 1330s Mudas had a control over the spice trade. Specially designed armed galley guarded the ships loaded with spices. One of the most sought after spices was pepper- particularly so because it was “dry”, “sufficiently non-perishable” and could “endure transportation by ship, camel, and mule… without a noticeable decline of quality”. (pp49) Pepper originated in Western Ghats, India, was transplanted to Sumatra as early as two thousand years ago. Currently, pepper is grown in Brazil and China. Presently, Vietnam has overtaken India as the world’s largest exporter of pepper. Then he moves on to the spice trade of Lisbon where Michael travels back in time to tell us how pepper travelled from Malabar to Lisbon and how cinnamon from Ceylon made its way into the Lisbon. Michael takes us back to the medieval times of King Joao I and King Joao II and the wars they fought to initially conquer “Gold that flowed down West African rivers. But other goods were picked along with precious cargo, too- most notably, enslaved African ivory and the “pepper” collected in the blackwoods” (pp118). During King Joao II’s rule “who really made reaching Asia by sea a national priority” (pp119). Michael weaves the spice trail against the naval route that the ships took. He gives you an account of the spice routes through the travelogues of the sailors, cookbooks and lost recipes and ends his spice trail in Amsterdam.
This tale of the three great cities of spice is gripping as it conquers many a shores for the search of the “spices”. The book ends with an account of the secret fourth floor of the multi-national conglomerate McCormick which is the spice chamber of the contemporary world. In a nutshell the book is engaging and provides an interesting account of not only how spices travelled but how spices were used and how cuisines emerged with the changing imports of spices. In other words, how it changed the fate of the three great cities which played a key role in the spice trade. The book will be of interest to any foodie like you and me who know how to add spice to your food and life.