Sweet notes…

I don’t seem to get through my second chapter. The various drafts of the second chapter  which I had to submit some ten days back seem to be staring at me. While various names of sweet and sweet anecdotes dot the footnotes of the chapter, I struggle to find the thread that binds them together and I am back to blogging.

Reason – a book that is close to my soul and will find its way in many references in my dissertation. I take a little pride in the fact I have followed the author’s work and his book The Taste of Conquest is a must read for all those who want to want take a spice trail across three fascinating cities. I had discussed the book sometime ago in this blog.

Here’s the link https://itiriti.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/spice-trail-journey-through-venice-lisbon-and-amsterdam/.

Michael Krondl’s (2011) latest work Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert again takes you through a fascinating tour across India, Middle East, Italy, France, Vienna, U.S.A. In his words, he begins his leg of journey with India- “where sugar was first refined, to the Middle East where it was enthusiastically adopted in the later years of the first millennium, then to Europe and finally America” (pp13). Krondl discusses in detail the sacredness around sweets in India and takes you back and forth across North, East and Southern India through a chronicle of sweet spread prepared from milk (mainly chhana, khoa. After the Indian trail of Modaka, Laddu, Rosogolla, Sandesh the reader is taken into the workshop of Baklava factory in Istanbul and the genesis of Baklava is traced back to some Arabian desserts. Similar to India, Gods of Ancient Mesopotamia were also offered sweets. Krondl writes, “To feed their appetites, confectioners were attached to temples. They specialised in making sacred cakes, which were consumed in large numbers during religious rituals” (Krondl 2011:85). The dessert tour of Middle East takes you through Baghdad, Iran and finally concludes with a lovely recipe of Qatayif. The third chapter on Italy takes into the enchanting tales of how cultures merge and shape culinary delights. Venice in particular played a strong role in the spice trail and Krondl alludes to the ways in which cinnamon and sugar was used in abundance in Renaissance Italy. The fourth chapter is dedicated to France, followed by Vienna and U.S.A.- each with detailed description of the unfolding of the nation’s obsession with desserts and the ways in which the cultural encounters forced confectioners to embrace techniques, and create new inventions.

The ways in which certain commodities were responsible for labour migration does not go unnoticed by the food historian. As he recounts the tales of introduction of desserts there is an undertone of the history of sugar plantation labour. In his own words, “Sugar was the prime mover of the transatlantic traffic in human beings”. (pp4) The sweetener i.e., sugar which has been responsible for the success of confectioner’s art and artistry is celebrated across the chapters along with the desserts which makes this book an interesting read and an important book in food history. The role of dessert in food history is significant and yet from a biological standpoint it is “frivolous, unnecessary” and this is precisely why Michael points out that “when you talk about dessert you step away from analyzing basic human needs to a conversation about culture” (pp3). The book precisely explores those cross cultural linkages and connections in this mapping of desserts.

Book Review : Krondl,M.2011. Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.


Spice Trail : Journey through Venice, Lisbon and Amsterdam

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.

 Happy reading!

©itiriti 2012.