A closer look at herbs through the centuries
For centuries man has been aware of the exceptional value of herbs. At first only for their nutritional value, but later also for religious, culinary and medicinal purposes.
Thousands of years BC, scholars in ancient civilisations like the Greek, the Egyptian and the Chinese were already putting down their knowledge of herbs on paper. Through the centuries the lists of useful plants for relieving all sorts of ailments and diseases grew longer and longer.
Nowadays herbs are mainly used in the kitchen. But still, learning about the origin and history of some of our most common kitchen herbs can be quite a revelation. You might end up using rosemary in your bath water or perhaps you will drink thyme tea like the Romans did. But just sprinkling some freshly chopped parsley on your carrots is fine too.
The words herbs and spices are often mixed up, but there is a difference. Herbs are parts of plants like roots, stems and leaves, fruits and seeds that grow in a moderate climate, like Europe. Spices are the same parts, but of plants that grow in a tropical climate. These last ones are mostly used dried in Europe.
Knowledge of herbs.
In the past men and women were well respected for their knowledge of herbs. In Europe for example there were the druids. They promoted the use of herbs to cure ailments and used the power of nature. Everyone knows some stories of miraculous recoveries that led herbs to be associated with wizardry. It often turned out to be partially based on regular chemical processes of which people were not aware yet. For instance, the custom of wearing herb pouches to ward off disease like typhus has a scientific background: the oils in some herbs are powerful antiseptics.
Herbs have always played a major role in religious life. Holy balm oil consisted of myrrh and cinnamon, and aloe was burned as incense. Such spices were as valuable as gold and the people who traded in these things were therefore very powerful. History changed dramatically with the coming of the trade in herbs and spices.
In the centuries before Christ, the Arabs had the monopoly of the herb and spice trade. They were able to maintain this luxury position by scaring people off by telling frightening tales and adventure stories about their long travels from which they brought spices from the Far East to Europe.
Their convoys could consist of some 4000 heavily packed camels with spices from places like Goa and Calcutta. The treasures were then sold on the markets of Babylon, Carthage, Alexandria and Rome.
Time eventually undermined their position of power. With the downfall of the ancient civilisations, herbs and spices sank into oblivion.
When the Moors conquered Spain in the 8th century they also reinstated the use of herbs and spices. In those days the Moors perfected their natural scientific processes like extracting and distilling essential oils and perfumes from aromatic plants. In the 12th century a thriving trade developed between the crusaders and merchants from the East: linen and wool from the West were traded for spices and silk from the East. Because of its strategic position Venice became the major transit port for Europe. At the end of the 13th century the Venetian Marco Polo set out on his journey to places like China, Burma and India and the stories about his travels made people very curious. It has been said that Columbus was inspired by, among other things, these stories and set out to find a new sea route and so discovered America in 1492. When they finally did find a new sea route to India around the Cape, the entire spice and herb trade was affected.
At the same time the interest in herb gardens became popular. People did not eat vegetables in those days. They did, however, eat a lot of meat, which was seasoned with herbs that were grown in a sheltered spot along the fortress wall. Soon it became necessary to build a boundary, like a thick beech hedge, around the herb gardens to stop animals but more importantly to stop thieves from going off with their precious herbs.
The new horizons offered the Dutch, the English and the Portuguese fresh trade routes and they were now using their own ports. Venice lost its key position. This shift in power enabled the sea faring nations to develop into great powers.
Thanks to their strong fleet the Dutch were most influential on the islands around the East Indies, now Indonesia. In 1658 their United East Indies Company controlled the cinnamon trade in Ceylon and later also the stocks of pepper and other spices on Celebes and Java.
The English set up their East India Company and traded mainly on the mainland of India. America started to get pepper from Sumatra. America's first millionaire, Elias Haskett Derby, made his fortune in the pepper trade. Pepper was extremely costly! It was sold per corn and was often given as dowry. Slaves could buy their freedom with a pound of pepper.
In the 17th and 18th century huge amounts of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, mace and herbs were being used to enhance the flavour of food and for preserving foods. Towards the end of the 19th century the use of spices declined again. People did not have to grow their own herbs anymore for medicinal uses, as artificial replacements like modern medicines became available. The need for preserving food or disguising unpleasant smells lessened.
Today there is a growing interest in spices and herbs. People become more aware of what nature has to offer us, especially because of culinary developments. Exotic holidays and the mixing of different cultures have brought a range of foreign dishes and their ingredients to evryone. And this can't be a bad thing, the old and the new knowledge of herbs and spices can only be regarded as enrichment.
If you want to know more about herbs, the culinary uses and how to grow a number of major kitchen herbs from a historical perspective, look further into our web site.