European ship for the spice trade
Cooking History, Non Recipes, Nutrition

Why did Europe colonize the entire world in its quest for spices?

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Last Updated on 4 months by Tim

Why is it that seeds, barks, or leaves with no nutritional value have always been so strongly desired by European people? It was certainly not solely because of their taste that people would pay exorbitant prices. In fact, most spices are an acquired taste.

However, spices were so popular that prior to the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, the spice trade was the primary way for people to get rich. The incredible wealth of the Swabian Fugger and Welser merchant families was almost solely established on their profits from the spice trade.

Until today, the name Fugger is a European-wide synonym for wealth, and the historical city of Augsburg is still known under the secondary name ‘Fuggerstadt’ which literally translates to ‘Fugger city’.

What’s the appeal of the world’s most expensive spice?

Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice and yet a lot of first time eaters are underwhelmed when they taste it for the first time. A quick google search reveals that saffron is supposed to taste grassy, earthy, floral with a few notes of honey. But let’s face the truth. If you’re not accustomed to it saffron tastes slightly bitter and reminds you more of a pharmacy than a flavorful exotic spice.

Saffron powder sold in a market
Saffron dies foods in an appetizing yellow color.

Of course, saffron lends rice an appetizing yellow color. The word saffron comes from the Arabic word ‘za’faran’ which means yellow. But just for the sake of coloring, you could also use cheaper dyestuffs such as safflower or curcumin. You need the insane amount of 150 000 saffron flowers to produce one kilogram of saffron spice. It is therefore very ineffective to grow and produce saffron just for the sake of its color.

But because saffron was so exclusive and expensive to produce, it has become the most heavily counterfeited spice. In the year 1440, the medieval German states even imposed the death penalty for producing and trading counterfeited saffron. Saffron counterfeiters were buried or burnt alive. This law was extended to the entire Holy Roman Empire in 1551. But until this day, the business with counterfeit saffron is thriving and promises high-profit margins.

Saffrons lethal side effects

What distinguishes saffron from other yellow dies is that it is a potent drug. It was already known in ancient times that 12 grams of pure saffron is lethal. Today, the lethal dose of saffron is estimated at 20 grams. And you don’t even need to eat saffron to get poisoned by it. A lengthy inhalation of its volatile components is enough to cause serious illnesses and death.

It was not uncommon for saffron traders who slept on or near their valuable good to never wake up again. Even the saffron pluckers were known to sometimes suddenly faint on the field.

Saffron flowers
Crocus flowers on a field.

But as with almost every other extremely potent drug, a small dose of saffron has a very different effect. In small doses, saffron has the same pain-relieving and anticonvulsive effects as opium. It acts as a euphoriant that brightens the mood. Dating back to the year 1860, doctors described the effect of saffron on children as being what opium is for adults.

Scientists are far away from decoding all the individual active ingredients in saffron, but it is apparent that the pharmacological effects of several opiates are what makes the taste of saffron seem attractive. When you eat saffron for the first time, you won’t be impressed by its taste. But once your brain and body notice its euphorigenic effect your palate will grow to appreciate its taste. It’s like with all drugs and addictions. At first, you don’t mind the taste. But your brain and body love the effects and thus will learn to appreciate the taste quickly.

It’s the same phenomenon as the one I have previously discussed in my post about bitterness in foods. Once your body notices the health benefits of bitter-tasting foods your palate will learn to appreciate them. Your body knows what is good for its health. You just have to listen to it.

In small doses, drugs offer many health benefits

Saffron strands
Saffron strands are worth their weight in gold.

And even though saffron is most likely beloved across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia because it has similar effects to opium that doesn’t mean it is unhealthy. Just like with any drug, an overdose is what makes it toxic. Every single substance on this earth is toxic. But small quantities of potent drugs like saffron, opium, or marihuana offer countless health benefits. Saffron is known to:

  • improve the mood and counteract depressive syndromes
  • be a powerful anticarcinogenic
  • reduce premenstrual syndromes
  • reduce inflammation, appetite, and aid weight loss

I noticed that in North America saffron seems to be beloved way less in the than in Europe. I think a compelling reason for that is obviously the price. It’s shocking how many recipes on American websites that include saffron receive negative comments because they are supposedly ‘elitist’. But I think by now you should’ve learned that saffron is, without a doubt, worth its price.

Backe, backe Kuchen, der Bäcker hat gerufen. Wer will guten Kuchen backen, der muss haben sieben Sachen. Eier und Schmalz, Zucker und Salz, Milch und Mehl, Safran macht den Kuchen gehl!

Bake a cake, the baker said. Whoever wants to bake a great cake needs to include seven things. Eggs and lard, sugar and salt, milk and flour, saffron lends the cake an appetizing yellow color.

Famous German child song dating back to the year 1840

How pepper became Europes most beloved spice

The spice most commonly used in European cooking is obviously not saffron but pepper. And while North America doesn’t share Europe’s enthusiasm for saffron, both cultures are united in their love for pepper. Pepper in ancient Europe was once so valuable that grains were often sold individually and paid by their weight in silver.

Since Alexander the Great, the king of the ancient Greek empire Macedon, brought pepper from India to Europe the whole continent has been hooked on it. The invasion of India by the Macedon’s dates back to the year 326 BC. So pepper has been a part of European cuisine for quite a long time now.

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great was one of the world’s most successful military leaders.

The initially skeptical Roman empire became quickly hooked on pepper. At first, the Romans rejected pepper because of its hot taste. Spicy food was a novelty for them. But over the years pepper became an integral part of Roman cuisine that was used to season almost any dish. And not just that, the Romans preferred the hotter long pepper variety over the milder black peppercorns.

Importing pepper was, of course, insanely expensive. The Romans didn’t have an unlimited supply of gold and silver to pay for it. Often it was traded on the land route which drove up the price because every middleman took a profit.

It took a long time for the Romans to establish a sea route to India that was later shut down by the Arabs. The Romans even set up two legions across the Malabar Coast of southwestern India to protect their trade interests. Impressive collections of Roman gold and silver coins have been found in the southwestern Indian trading city of Cochin. It’s almost unbelievable how high of a price the Roman empire was willing to pay for pepper.

The sea route of the Romans to India which was later shut down by the Arabs to protect their dominance in the spice trade.
By User: PHGCOM – Detail of 300px, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12107882

The Roman empire reached much farther than you might have expected. Historians assume that Roman ships might have sailed as far as to the Indonesian islands Java, Sumatra, and Borneo. Globalization is no recent phenomenon.

The Romans might have traveled as far as to the Indonesian islands.

The Middle Ages were the golden age of pepper

In most of Europe, pepper has been used excessively. In the year 1500, the Bremen city council ruled that authentic German gingerbread has to consist of 25 parts of white pepper to 166 parts of honey to 180 parts of wheat flour. That is 140 grams (5 ounces) of pepper per kilo (2.2 pounds) of flour. An insanely high amount considering today’s standards.

The French were the first ones to break with the tradition of using spices in excess in Europe. In the 17th century, the French elite complained bitterly that on journeys abroad the food was inedible because of the excessive use of spices. They concluded that too much spice would make the food inedible.

If you look at recipes from the Middle Ages today you would be shocked by the amount of pepper they included as well. Just look again at the proportions of the authentic German gingerbread recipe. Because of the French influence, who preferred their food less spicy, our modern European palate has evolved to be more sensitive (which is not necessarily a bad thing). In general, we Europeans prefer our food to be less pungent than indigenous tribes in Africa or South America.

Three theories might explain the reason for pepper’s popularity

But why is it that our ancestors preferred their food extremely spicy? Today we praise high-quality meat. We don’t want to cover the taste of a $100 steak with a mound of peppercorns and cloves. But back in the middle ages, there was no refrigeration. The meat had to be consumed immediately or salted. Oftentimes, the meat served was rotten and overly salty so it didn’t taste very appetizing. To cover up the rotten smell and taste the meat was covered in cloves and peppers.

Peppercorns
Peppercorns were used in the Middle Age to cover up disgusting smells and tastes.

But people obviously didn’t thrive on a diet of rotten meat. It posed a severe risk for food poisoning so there must be another reason why pepper was used so extensively even in dishes prepared with fresh meat. The reason for that might be the main flavor component of pepper: piperine. Piperine is a strong insecticide. It’s an extremely effective antimicrobial against all kinds of harmful microorganisms in food. So even fresh meat could be protected from contamination with harmful bacteria.

But there’s an even more compelling explanation as to why pepper has become so popular. Europe became addicted to it. The spicy sensation we experience from pepper is not a taste by itself but rather a pain reaction. This pain reaction releases opiates produced by our own bodies. These opiates are known as endorphins and they improve our mood. Our body loves these opiates which is why over time our palate will become accustomed to the taste of spicy foods through exposure. In fact, our palate will adjust to tolerate higher levels of heat every time we eat spicy food.

Once accustomed to it, our body craves the endorphin kick provided by spicy foods. We get ‘addicted’ to it. With this theory in mind, it becomes obvious why the Roman Empire spent all its wealth on black peppercorns. Ever since Alexander the Great introduced pepper to Europe, Europe has been dependent on new shipments from India to fulfill its cravings and desires.

Why do Germans love nutmeg?

The last spice I want to cover in this discussion is nutmeg. Nutmeg is almost as important to German cuisine as pepper. You might’ve noticed that already if you’ve skimmed through my recipes. It’s the only spice that I require to be freshly grated and that I specify you to add to your taste.

Nutmegs
Nutmeg is universally beloved all across Germany.

Nutmeg has been introduced to Europe much later than pepper. It was probably the Arabs who brought it to Europe. Nutmeg was used to treat numerous illnesses by Arabian doctors. The first reference of nutmeg in Germany goes back to Hildegard von Bingen who was born 1098.

If someone eats nutmeg, it opens his heart and purifies his senses, and provides him good understanding.

Hildegard von Bingen

Von Bingen recommended a spice mix of equal parts of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves to season baked goods. She claimed that this spice mix will ‘soothe all bitterness of the heart and make spirits merry’. Nutmeg quickly rose in popularity and by the late fifteenth century, it was one of the most popular spices in Germany and used as a pharmacy.

Nutmeg has many similarities with saffron

As you might’ve guessed by now nutmeg is just as poisonous as saffron. Around 15 % of the nutmeg essential oil is made up of psychoactive substances. An overdose of nutmeg has a narcotic effect that is accompanied by laughter and hallucinations. About two to three teaspoons of powdered nutmeg are lethal.

As you know already our body loves and craves the psycho-active effects of drugs. Thus there was a huge demand for nutmeg in Europe. For Europeans, nutmeg was easier and cheaper to acquire than pepper thanks to the extensive acquisition of colonies. To make the nutmeg trade profitable, the Dutch East India Company often burnt large parts of the harvest to acquire a monopoly and keep the supply low.

An unlimited monopoly that controlled the worldwide supply of important spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves was the basis of the prosperity of the Dutch East India Company.

Amsterdam city
Amsterdam’s prosperity was a result of the economical success of the Dutch East India Company.

One of the psychoactive ingredients in nutmeg is one of the secrets of the most famous beverage worldwide. Coca-Cola contains myristicin in its ‘secret’ aroma mix. Myristicin is part of the nutmeg essential oil that gets converted by enzymes of our liver into the amphetamine MMDA. As stated on the Wikipedia page for MMDA:

MMDA produces euphoria and loving warmth, and attenuates feelings such as anxiety and loneliness. MMDA also produces closed eye visuals, a state of drowsiness, muscle relaxation, and time distortion.

Source: Wikipedia

The synthetic drug amphetamine is known under the name speed or pep. So it’s quite obvious why Coca-Cola became a worldwide success. Its inventor, John Pemberton, didn’t just randomly throw together spices until they tasted alright. He knew exactly what he was doing. The original recipe even included cocaine which made the drink even more addicting. And while there are no more psychoactive elements from coca leaves in the drink today, you might still very subtly feel warm and relaxed when you drink a bottle of coke thanks to the nutmeg extract.

A little bonus for all the Catholics

I am not Catholic but I always wondered why the Catholic church valued frankincense and myrrh so much. I guess you might know the obvious reason by now. Frankincense has a psychoactive effect and is a powerful anesthetic. In fact, frankincense was added to wine that was given to criminals prior to their cruel execution. There’s a good chance that Jesus was intoxicated with frankincense while he died on the cross.

Frankenincense
Frankincense is not only valued by Catholics but also by East Asian cultures.

Two components in frankincense, olivetol and verbenol, might react when burned to form tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) better known as one of the main psychoactive components of weed. Until today, the catholic church fights against these findings. Unfortunately, the analytical proof of this process hasn’t been published by the German scientists who first discovered this phenomenon as to not ‘offend’ the Catholic church.

How Europe acquired its enormous wealth

It was the quest for exotic spices that made European empires expand across the entire planet accumulating unbelievable amounts of wealth. For a long time, exotic spices from Asia were traded across the land route through Arabia. The Islamic world controlled the world’s spice trade. Europe obviously didn’t have an unlimited supply of gold and silver to pay the Arabs so that the only solution to acquire affordable spices was to establish a sea route to India.

There was very little knowledge in Europe on where the spices originated from. The only information available was that of spies and travelers such as Marco Polo and the monks Oderico of Pordenone and Jordanus. Christopher Columbus was the first big explorer who dared to bypass the Islamic world in search of India. He obviously failed and landed in America by mistake. He was very disappointed that he couldn’t find any spice plants there.

In 1498, Vasco da Gama was the first modern European explorer to reach the Malabar Coast of India. The operation was a huge financial success for Portugal. The Islamic world was suddenly out of business. Even if four out of five ships failed to return, the sea route was considerably cheaper and more profitable than the caravan routes dominated by the Arabs.

V
Vasco da Gama’s sea route from Portugal to India bypassing the Arabian Gulf.
By Walrasiad – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10874472

How Europe quickly took over the entire world

The once-thriving East who had built its immense wealth to a fair extent by exploiting the European desire for spice didn’t receive any more payments from Europe. What followed was a drastic shift in wealth and power. European empires began to thrive and colonize almost the entire world. With brutal wars all over the globe European nations enslaved the native populations to make them serve as spice suppliers.

History has once again proven to be brutal. The spice suppliers themselves have never profited much from their valuable goods. The only ones massively profiting from the spice trade have always been the middleman.

On their journey around the world, the European colonialists discovered many more potent drugs and stimulants. By the year 1800, spices had lost a lot of their once insane popularity. Easier digestible stimulants like coffee, chocolate, tea, and tobacco became en vogue in Europe. Europe became addicted once again. The amount of coffee and chocolate consumed in Western countries nowadays is insane. And while chocolate certainly tastes good it also contains mood-lifting components that are natural antidepressants. Our love for narcotics has never vanished and probably never will.

Coffee growers
The discovery of new stimulants like coffee led to a decline in the importance of spices in Europe.

Europe itself has historically possessed only very few usable intoxicants such as alcohol, fly agaric, and ergot. These are all very strong narcotics and have a lot of negative side effects. Our body has a much higher tolerance for exotic spices which is why they were so popular once they’ve been discovered.

The love for narcotics is shared universally across the entire world. Until today, the trade of legal and illegal drugs is thriving. Even in Egyptian mummies, traces of cocaine have been found. We created and sustain a complex intercontinental trade system to feed our addictions.

Resources:

11 Impressive Health Benefits of Saffron

THE SPICE TRADE AND ITS IMPORTANCE FOR EUROPEAN EXPANSION

6 Comments

  1. Tim. What a wounderful change from the normal sites that seem to go on and on about their mom,their children,their pets and love…… after an essay and dozens of info adds cutting in you forgat what their reason was to keep reading.

    Thankyou
    Harold

    • Thanks a lot for your nice comment, Harold! I’m glad you enjoy my blog. Yes, I always try to keep my posts relevant. I don’t want to and never will fill it with boring family stories. – Tim

  2. Michael O'Keefe

    Great post Tim! Very interesting and loved the pictures and artwork. I didn’t know of the psycho-active aspects of these spices, except for „fly agaric“ which is supposedly the real history behind Santa’s „flying“ reindeer (https://www.livescience.com/25731-magic-mushrooms-santa-claus.html), and also the strange looks one gets when buying the large quantities of poppy seeds required for Hungarian deserts. Tim Ferriss, the „life-style“ blogger, is a proponent of psycho-active research.

    Anyway, I stumbled across a reference to the Dutch East India Tea Company in Simon Winchester’s „Krakatoa“, in fact this excerpt happens to discuss a few of the spices you mention: https://www.simonwinchester.com/krakatoa-chapter-excerpt I’ve always thought this is an area that has to be further explored, and I was hoping Winchester (or someone ) might write a book on it, i.e. expand that chapter, but so far I haven’t found a good book on this.

    • Thanks for your comment, Michael! Yes, it’s quite a fascinating topic and I agree with you that it is hard to find a good book about the topic. I’m unaware of any book that covers all of Europe’s colonialization period. I think it’s very tough to get accurate information because most stories are told from a Western perspective. The conquerors of the New World and the far East are seen as heroes in European history whereas they have been the pure nightmare for local populations. While East Asia was pretty advanced and could at least offer some resistance to the Europeans, the underdeveloped American continent and Australia were helpless. It would be very interesting to have an insight into the spice trade from natives. What were their motivations to produce spices expect money? How did they discover such a wide array? And why do more spices grow in hot climates?

  3. What an insightful article. i stumbled upon your article while searching about the reasons of European Cuisine’s Blandness. i myself from South Asia and we use insane amount of spices even in everyday dishes. we are told about medicinal benefits of spices since our childhood. i never knew about this psychoactive proponent part. i always prided myself for being a complete prohibitionist…not even addicted to innocent looking caffeine. this article changed my perspective though. i thank you for this article. your research is evident.

    • Thanks for your comment, Priti! I’m glad you learned something from the post. In South Asia, there is a lot of knowledge about the medical properties of herbs and spices. Their psychoactive effects can be very subtle but that is often good enough to be a kind of medicine. In Europe, with the discovery of chocolate, coffee, and tobacco we somehow lost our fascination with throwing tons of spices in every food (expect for pepper, that is in every dish). During Medieval times, European cuisine was full of spices. We used the most spices worldwide. Then we somehow got rid of many 😂 – Tim

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