Spices Whole and Ground

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The common view of spice in the West is a small section in a supermarket with tiny bottles or boxes of obscure ingredients.  Some sadly looking like they had long past there best in the heavy strip lighted stores.  To add to this the advice offered by the busy shelf stacker has often lacked due to the knowledge required to advise on the best use of these products.  Sadly in the UK a standard supermarket outside a heavily populated multi cultural area will lack even the basics let alone the knowledge. Some spices look relatively fresh, while other spices look like they were scooped out of the deserts on Mars and bottled. Unfortunately, this is the only view many people have of spices - mostly uninteresting, used only because recipes call for them.

Spice often stored in beautiful elaborate bottles to reflect their magical properties, When you opened the bottle, a poof of vibrantly colored, mystically fragrant, magical smoke would slowly billow softly throughout the room. Spices have been the inspiration for trade, exploration, war, and peace since the beginning of civilization. That ground pepper you shake on your salad was once worth its weight in gold; the nutmeg you grate on a rice pudding once fueled a war that gained Long Island for England.

Spices have been important to mankind since the beginning of history. They are mentioned in the tales of Gilgamesh, the Bagavad Gita, and various transcripts of the Holy Bible and the Koran.

An obvious  importance of spices is their role in the exploration of our planet .  Our quest for exciting new flavors and medicines have had many nations historically traveling the four corners of the Earth for new and exciting discoveries.   The rewards came in rare and beautiful forms of spices, rare animals and new plants..

As recently as the 1500s, when the “Spice Wars”  between the Portuguese and the Dutch and later the Dutch and the English, one of the most sought after spices on the wish list was nutmeg. And it was not because the Queen desired a new dessert, rather, nutmeg was highly touted as a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603.

Not only were many men’s fortunes made in the pursuit of spices, spices at many periods throughout history literally served as currency. Pharisees in Judea paid tithes in cumin seeds. When Alaric the Visigoth held Rome under siege in the fifth century, the ransom included 3000 pounds of peppercorns. During the fourteenth century, in Germany, one pound of nutmeg could be traded for seven FAT oxen. At other points in history, rent would be paid in peppercorns, and a pound of pepper would serve to buy the freedom of a slave in medieval France.

In researching the history of spices, we find a recurring theme in that virtually every spice appears to have a medicinal value.   The famous English herbalist Culpepper prescribed ginger for his patients “weak in the sports of Venus.” While Vanilla re discovered by Cortez in Mexico and brought back to Europe, has been used in Chinese Herbal medicine for the cure of impotence.  Spices for centuries have been used in Ayervidic, Chinese Traditional Herbal Medicine and medicinal herbal medicine through out the world, for everything from dieting to hair loss. 

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