Spices started to become popular in England in medieval times when soldiers and traders brought them back from far-flung corners of the globe. Their rarity made spices a prized commodity, reserved mostly for the rich and royalty. Since Christmas was a time of great feasts, many spices became synonymous with this time of year, with traditional dishes given an exotic overhaul with the introduction of some amazingly flavoursome spices.
Here are the stories behind some of our favourite Christmas spices.
Thought to be more valuable than gold in some ancient cultures, cinnamon has a long history and led to many traders and sailors – including Christopher Columbus – scouring the world for a source of the spice. Derived from the inner bark of Cinnamomum trees, cinnamon was found to be native to countries such as Sri Lanka and India. It’s not just the flavour of cinnamon that is useful in cooking – it also inhibits the growth of bacteria on meat, and has been used for its preservative qualities since ancient times.
Actually flower buds from a tree native to Indonesia, cloves are used as a spice due to the aromatic quality they bring to cuisine. Cloves are known to have been around for thousands of years, after a ceramic vessel containing cloves dating back to 1721 BCE was discovered in Syria. It is even believed a Chinese leader in the Han Dynasty required anyone who spoke to him to chew cloves to freshen their breath first! As well as being popular in Christmas culinary creations, cloves are also regularly used together with cinnamon and cumin in Mexican and Peruvian food.
This spice is made by grinding seeds from the nutmeg tree into powder. Nutmeg is another Christmas food stalwart that is native to Indonesia, first discovered on the island of Pulau Ay approximately 3,500 years ago. Nutmeg was quickly discovered to have many useful properties, helping to preserve food and believed to ward off the plague. Traders who first discovered the spice kept its origin secret so they could keep the monopoly on the prized item. Many battles followed to gain control over the island source, but nowadays that isn’t a problem, as at least 10,000 tonnes of nutmeg is produced across the world every year.
Native to Southeast Asia, ginger was widely used in ancient cultures to treat various illnesses and ailments. By the 1st century, it was already being cultivated in multiple countries and being transported to Europe. Many people turn to ginger today to help settle the stomach, but it’s most popularly used in an array of cooking. As well as festive treats such as gingerbread, ginger is served everywhere from sushi bars as a pickled accompaniment, to the gravies of Indian curries.