Most spices and flavorings used in holiday foods and beverages are derived from plants. Their use provides a close link to our ancient ancestors as we observe the holiday season. New Year's eggnog would not be the same without a dash of vanilla and a topping of nutmeg. Equally, hot mulled cider would be rather bland without cinnamon and cloves. Finally, what other time of the year are gingerbread houses constructed other than at Christmas?
Spices have had a profound influence on our civilization. Their demand in Europe before and during the Renaissance Era led to a lucrative spice trade in which vast fortunes were made. Spice routes carrying the precious cargo developed from their source in the East Indies to Europe. When these routes faltered because of political conflict, the need to supply spices for the aristocracy of Europe prompted early explorers such as Columbus, Da Gamma, Diaz, and Magellan to seek a shorter route to the spice-laden East by sailing west. Thus, the "New World" was discovered.
The words "herb" and "spice" often are interchanged in common English usage. However, for culinary purposes, herb usually refers to a fragrant plant with herbaceous (non-woody) stems. A part of the plant, or perhaps even the entire plant, is used for flavoring. Herb flavors are relatively mild and often best when the plant material used is fresh. Basil and thyme are examples of herbs.
Spices, on the other hand, are more commonly derived from dried or processed parts of plants that are tropical in origin. Most are woody plants in morphology and impart much stronger flavors. Thus, they normally are used in smaller quantities. Most of the older spices were native to the Orient and areas of southeast Asia. Cinnamon and cloves are examples of spices.
A few plants fit into the flavorings category. In the latter, an essential oil is extracted from a plant part. Vanilla is and example of a flavoring and is derived from the seed pod of a certain genus of orchids.
While many herbs can be grown in home gardens, most spices are not suited to our outdoor climate because of their tropical nature. Additionally, most are not easily grown in a typical indoor environment, for various reasons.
As mentioned earlier, vanilla comes from several species of climbing orchids in the genus Vanilla. It makes a novel plant for the home, given the proper growing conditions. The latter normally would be found only in a greenhouse, since the plant must bloom in order to produce the vanilla pods from whence the flavoring is derived. However, even if the orchid flowers and produces pods, a fairly precise and lengthy process is needed to extract good quality vanilla from them.
Nutmeg, a key ingredient for eggnog and pumpkin pie, comes from an evergreen tree Columbus discovered on Granada, one of the West Indies islands. This tree (Myristica fragrans) actually produces two spices: nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is produced by gathering, drying and grinding the seed kernels of the tree into powder. Mace, on the other hand, is derived from the waxy, lacy sheath encasing the nutmeg seed. Its flavor is considered lighter than that of nutmeg and its use is not associated with holiday cuisine.
Probably the oldest and most sought-after spice of antiquity was cinnamon. Still a very popular spice, the history of cinnamon can be traced back to about 5000 B.C. The ancient Egyptians and Hebrews used cinnamon in sacred ceremonies. Throughout antiquity, cinnamon was highly prized and extremely expensive. In ancient Rome, a Roman pound of cinnamon (11.5 oz.) was valued at the equivalent of 50 months of labor for the average worker. At that time, its origin was a mystery purposefully maintained to benefit those who profited from its sale. According to one written account, cinnamon was gathered from the nests of cinnamon birds. The latter, of course, being traders' fiction fabricated to be able to charge more for it.
Cinnamon is derived from the aromatic inner bark of one of several trees native to southeast Asia in the genus Cinnamomum. True cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), highly prized by the ancients, was produced from a bushy, relatively small tree native to Sri Lanka. Most cinnamon in commerce today comes from Cinnamomum cassia, a related species native to southern China and south Asia. After branches of these trees are cut and scraped, the inner bark is removed in long sections. As it dries, it curls into small sticks or quills. Bark that does not curl properly is ground for sale as powdered cinnamon.
Clove is another popular holiday spice. Vasco da Gama found clove trees growing on the Molucca Islands, which lie just east of Indonesia. Today most of the world's clove production takes place in Zanzibar. Cloves are the aromatic dried flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum, a large tropical tree. They consist of a long calyx that ends in four spreading sepals, and four unopened petals that form a small ball in the center of the bud. Light red when harvested, the buds develop a reddish-brown color when dried. When allowed to develop, clove flowers are a brilliant red. Oil derived from cloves has long been used in traditional medicine, since there is evidence that it is effective for combating toothache and other types of pain.
Ginger is an important ingredient in ginger snaps and gingerbread, treats associated mainly with the holidays. It was among the first spices introduced into Europe by Arab caravans. Ginger is a product of India and southeast Asia. It comes from Zingiber officinale, a tropical, reed-like plant with very colorful flowers. Ginger is derived from the plant's fleshy underground stems, botanically known as rhizomes, which are dried and ground into a powder. Raw and preserved ginger was imported into Europe during the Middle Ages. Having been used for thousands of years for the treatment of numerous ailments, it was described in official pharmacopeias (books describing medicinal compounds) of several European countries during that period. Today, its health benefits (and safety) still are under investigation.
Finally, nearly every holiday treat involves sugar in one form or another. Sugar has been described as a food substance everyone craves, but no one needs. While neither a spice nor a flavoring in the minds of most, it is one civilization's oldest food "additives." Derived from sugarcane, a robust grass belonging to the genus Saccharum, it was first grown in New Guinea nearly 10,000 years ago. Originally, its sweetness was derived by chewing sections of raw cane. It was only after sugarcane was introduced to the Indian subcontinent that its refinement into granular sugar occurred. The Crusades are credited with introducing sugar to Europe and it subsequently was carried to the New World by early explorers such as Columbus. Maligned by the medical community because of its adverse health effects, it has been observed that no other substance occupies as much of the world's land, for so little benefit to humanity, as sugar.
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REVISED: December 15, 2021