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Episode
168

The Curious History of Spice

Jun 18, 2021
History
-
20
minutes
Weird history
Food & drink
Asia
India
The Middle Ages
The Middle East

Spices are an integral part of almost every cuisine in the world and are something that most of us now take for granted.

Yet spices used to be an incredibly valuable commodity and were the preserve of only the very richest in some societies.

In this episode, we'll learn more about how they went from being the preserve of the very richest in society to something that we sprinkle on our dishes without worrying about the cost.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Curious History of Spice.

[00:00:29] In this episode we will learn about what spices actually are, why they became so popular, when countries literally went to war over them, and the impact that the spice trade had on the world we live in today.

[00:00:45] It is a really interesting topic, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:00:49] Before we get right into today’s episode, I want to remind you that you can become a member of Leonardo English and follow along with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:05] Membership of Leonardo English gives you access to all of our learning materials, all of our bonus episodes, so that’s more than 160 different episodes now, as well as two new ones every week, plus access to our private community where we do live events, challenges, and much, much more.

[00:01:25] Our community now has members from over 50 countries, and it's my mission to make it the most interesting place for curious people like you to improve their English.

[00:01:36] So, if that is of interest, - and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:45] Now, if there is one thing we probably all take for granted in life, it is spice.

[00:01:54] On almost any restaurant table in Europe you would find a little container with salt and pepper, the stuff is literally given away for free with a meal. 

[00:02:04] And most supermarkets have an extraordinary collection of spices, from cinnamon to oregano, nutmeg to lavender, it is possible to buy almost any spice for a relatively small amount of money.

[00:02:20] But it hasn’t always been like this. And indeed, spices, even the most common and cheapest today, used to be incredibly expensive, the preserve of the richest in society.

[00:02:35] The history of how they went from rich man’s luxury to something we can all sprinkle on our food is fascinating. 

[00:02:44] But before we dive right into the history, it’s worth asking ourselves what we actually mean by spices, where spices grow, and what spices actually are.

[00:02:56] To start off with, let’s clarify one thing. Salt is not a spice, it’s a mineral, it is Sodium Chloride. 

[00:03:04] A spice is part of a plant. It normally comes from the seed, from the bark, the fruit, or the root of the plant. It’s different from a herb, which typically comes from the leaves or flowers of a plant.

[00:03:19] And why do we eat spices? 

[00:03:23] Why do we put them on our food? 

[00:03:25] Well, because we like the taste, of course.

[00:03:28] Whether you are the sort of person who puts tonnes of chillies on their food and gets excited by a vindaloo curry, or if you are the sort of person who just likes a little bit of pepper with their food, almost everyone consumes some amount of spice. 

[00:03:45] And if you consider sugar to be a spice, which by some it is still considered to be a spice, then there is probably spice in almost everything you eat.

[00:03:56] To put it simply, spices make food taste better.

[00:04:00] How much spice you like on your food probably depends on where you are from, and where you grew up. 

[00:04:07] If you are from a northern European country, like I am, then you might have grown up eating not very much spicy food, and this is of course one of the great criticisms of much of northern-European food - that it doesn’t taste of anything.

[00:04:24] But if you are from, let’s say southern India, west Africa, or Mexico, then you are probably used to having a relatively spicy diet.

[00:04:35] There is, as you no doubt know already, a correlation between how close to the equator a country is, how hot that country is, and how much spice is traditionally used in its cuisine, in its cooking.

[00:04:50] Why, you might ask. 

[00:04:52] Well, there are several theories about this.

[00:04:55] The first and most obvious is that this is where spices grow, so obviously these cuisines had primary access to them, and they became part of the style of food preparation.

[00:05:10] There are also theories that using spices in food makes you sweat, and sweating helps you cool down (which of course is handy if you are living in a hot climate).

[00:05:23] Another theory is that, because spices contain antibacterial properties, they were used to preserve meat and food, which would go bad more quickly in hotter climates. 

[00:05:36] The theory goes that people who used spices on food tended to live for longer, because their food wouldn’t have bacteria in it, and they would teach their children to use spices to preserve food, and thus spice became part of their cuisine, and they developed a taste for it.

[00:05:55] While we might never know the real reason, and food historians still don’t agree on the reason for this, there was a clear division between the regions, between the parts of the world that had and used spices, and the regions that didn’t.

[00:06:12] And this division is key to our story, and helps us understand how the spice trade shaped the world we live in today.

[00:06:23] There is evidence of spices being prized, of them being highly valued, almost since the beginning of time. 

[00:06:31] When archaeologists were examining the mummified body of the Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses II, who died in 1224 BC, they found two peppercorns inside his nose.

[00:06:46] We know that the Egyptians would bury valuable possessions with their pharaohs, and this gives us an indication of the importance of pepper, over 3,000 years ago.

[00:06:59] The Romans and Greeks used any spices, and food flavourings, that they could get their hands on. 

[00:07:06] Roman soldiers would be paid partly in salt, giving us the word salary

[00:07:12] As we already clarified, salt is a mineral, not a spice, but Romans weren’t worrying too much about the distinctions between the two. 

[00:07:21] The point here is about quite how much value was placed on something that nowadays is practically free, or at least is a tiny cost for most people. 

[00:07:33] Certainly, I imagine if your employer was to suggest that part of your salary was to be paid in salt, you would probably not be too happy about it.

[00:07:45] In the Middle Ages, as the trade routes between Europe and the rest of the world started to develop, spices started flowing to Europe.

[00:07:55] And one spice in particular: pepper.

[00:07:58] In a world where different states all had different currencies, and where there was no centralised financial system, pepper also doubled up as a currency, as a borderless form of money.

[00:08:13] It kept for quite a long time, it didn’t go bad, and it was easy to weigh.

[00:08:20] For example, early in the 12th Century the Venetians, aware of the importance of staying on the right side of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, presented him with a gift of pepper that weighed 50 lb in weight, or 23 kilos. 

[00:08:38] You might think that a gift of 23 kilos worth of pepper wasn’t a great gift, but this was incredibly valuable, pepper was incredibly expensive compared to what pepper costs today.

[00:08:53] To give you an example of the change in cost and therefore affordability of pepper, here are some examples of how much it costs in terms of labour, of how long an average man would have to work to buy half a kilo of pepper.

[00:09:10] In England, in the year 1250, it would take an average manual labourer about a week to earn enough money to buy half a kilo of pepper. So this gift of 23 kilos of pepper would have been almost the annual salary of a manual labourer.

[00:09:27] By the year 1400 it would only take 2 days, so the cost of pepper had more than halved.

[00:09:35] This didn’t mean that most manual labourers would be able to afford pepper, but the cost had reduced, and it wasn’t completely out of reach.

[00:09:46] By the 16th century the cost had reduced further, and a bag of pepper was found preserved on the body of one of the sailors of the Mary Rose, the magnificent ship of King Henry VIII, which sank in the year 1545.

[00:10:03] In terms of the use of spices in Medieval England, they really were a status symbol

[00:10:09] Salt and pepper were expensive, and spices were a way of showing off your wealth, of showing off how rich you were.

[00:10:19] With it being a feudal society, one dominated by kings and queens at the top, and everyone else below in a sort of pyramid, this meant huge extravagant meals by the kings and queens, which were a way of displaying power and status

[00:10:37] The king and his followers literally consumed a high proportion of the spices brought from the East to London. 

[00:10:45] Take, for example, King Edward I, who was King of England from 1272 to 1307. 

[00:10:52] When he returned from fighting the neighbouring Welsh at the end of the 13th century, his officials spent over £1755 on spices – a huge sum at the time. 

[00:11:07] To help give you an idea of the scale of this, his spending on spice was similar to the total annual income of one of his top aristocrats, or earls – so, that's one of the 12 richest people in the kingdom of England at the time. 

[00:11:24] So in today’s money we are talking millions of euros, just on spices. 

[00:11:31] You might be asking yourself, why were spices so expensive, when they are so cheap now? 

[00:11:38] Why did it cost the equivalent of a week’s wages to buy half a kilo of pepper when it might take half an hour’s wages to buy it now?

[00:11:48] The main reason was because the supply of spices from the East to Europe was tightly controlled by traders. 

[00:11:56] Pepper would have come primarily from Kerala, in southern India. It would have been transported across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea, through Alexandria, and up to Venice.

[00:12:09] There was a large cost involved in the transportation, and lots of different merchants involved, each taking their cut, each taking their percentage, and each getting rich through the trade.

[00:12:22] Given how prized spices were, given how in demand and valuable these spices were, it was no surprise that various different European countries thought, “well, why don’t we just go to where the spices are and take them for ourselves?”

[00:12:41] The first European countries to make a real effort to do this were Spain and Portugal. 

[00:12:47] They had been forced to buy spices from the Venetian merchants, and thought if they could go directly to the source, they would be able to cut out the middleman and secure more spices at a better price.

[00:13:02] They were right.

[00:13:04] The Portuguese were the first, and in 1498 the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama set off from Europe to India, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa. 

[00:13:18] Much to his surprise, he discovered a highly sophisticated harvesting and trading operation: cinnamon and pepper were already the major exports from this fertile and beautiful part of India.

[00:13:32] Da Gama had found the source, and this was to be a huge blow for Arab traders.

[00:13:40] 6 years before Vasco Da Gama, another man had set off representing the Spanish King, King Ferdinand.

[00:13:48] That man was Christopher Columbus, and he too had been looking for a source of Indian spices.

[00:13:55] As we know, he didn’t find it, he went the wrong way and found the Americas instead, leaving India open to the Portuguese.

[00:14:05] The subsequent years saw different European countries squabble, battle for power over different spice-producing regions in south East Asia.

[00:14:16] A hotspot for this was a collection of around 1000 different islands in Indonesia called the Maluku Islands, better known as the Spice Islands.

[00:14:27] These islands saw fierce competition between the Portuguese and the Dutch, and as you might imagine, severe persecution of the local inhabitants, who were at best forced to harvest spices for little to no money, and at worst, brutally killed.

[00:14:47] In 1609, the British also got involved, taking over control of one of the islands, and threatening to disrupt the Dutch monopoly

[00:14:58] The Dutch, eager to maintain their monopoly, later offered to give the British an island on the other side of the world in exchange for leaving one of The Spice Islands they had under their control.

[00:15:11] What was the island that the Dutch offered the British, you might be asking yourself?

[00:15:16] It was a small island just off the east coast of America called Manhattan. 

[00:15:24] This must surely go down as one of the greatest swaps in history, a great bargain for the British.

[00:15:32] As trade routes developed even further, and traders realised that spices could be grown elsewhere, prices started to fall, and not only did the spice trade become not as immensely profitable as it previously had been, but spices became more and more affordable to normal people in society.

[00:15:54] Britain was left with Manhattan, which is now one of the most valuable pieces of land in the world. The Dutch were left with Pulau Run, an island which is not particularly valuable.

[00:16:06] Of course, a lot of this early spice trade was enabled by colonialism, and its ugly twin, slavery. 

[00:16:14] From cinnamon to sugar, slaves were involved with the production of much of these spices that Europeans enjoyed on their plates. 

[00:16:23] It is, perhaps, even more horrifying when you consider that many spices have zero nutritional value; they just make your food taste nicer.

[00:16:33] Now, let’s return to the modern day, and consider some of the implications of the spice trade.

[00:16:41] Nowadays, spices are ubiquitous, they are everywhere, and–with a few exceptions–they are incredibly cheap. 

[00:16:49] India is still the world’s centre for spice production, producing around 75% of all of the world’s spices. 

[00:16:58] And the global spice market is valued at around $13 billion dollars. 

[00:17:03] It might sound like a lot, but when you think about the fact that spice is something that a majority of the people on the planet consumes in some shape or form at least once a day, it gives you an indication of quite how cheap spices really are.

[00:17:21] So, the curious history of spice is of something that was an expensive addition to food for pharaohs, an exotic luxury of kings, of parts of a plant worth so much that countries literally went to war over them. 

[00:17:37] Yet now they are very cheap, if you go to a European city you are more likely to find piles of spices in small low-cost grocery shops rather than luxury boutiques.

[00:17:50] But spices are an instrumental part of our history. 

[00:17:53] Their high prices encouraged merchants to make long journeys to bring them from East to West, and in doing so they enabled connections, the sharing of ideas between people of different cultures, and the start of the system of global trade that we are all beneficiaries of today.

[00:18:13] And of course let’s not forget that they make everything taste just so much better.

[00:18:22] OK then, that is it for the curious history of spice.

[00:18:26] It is a really interesting subject, and I think it’s fascinating to consider how something that used to be such a luxury is available to a large proportion of people in the world, at a very affordable price.

[00:18:40] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:18:44] How spicy do you like your food? How has the cuisine of the country you are from been influenced by spice?

[00:18:52] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:01] And as a final reminder, if you enjoyed this episode, and you are wondering where to get all of our bonus episodes, plus the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:19:17] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:22] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Curious History of Spice.

[00:00:29] In this episode we will learn about what spices actually are, why they became so popular, when countries literally went to war over them, and the impact that the spice trade had on the world we live in today.

[00:00:45] It is a really interesting topic, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:00:49] Before we get right into today’s episode, I want to remind you that you can become a member of Leonardo English and follow along with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:05] Membership of Leonardo English gives you access to all of our learning materials, all of our bonus episodes, so that’s more than 160 different episodes now, as well as two new ones every week, plus access to our private community where we do live events, challenges, and much, much more.

[00:01:25] Our community now has members from over 50 countries, and it's my mission to make it the most interesting place for curious people like you to improve their English.

[00:01:36] So, if that is of interest, - and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:45] Now, if there is one thing we probably all take for granted in life, it is spice.

[00:01:54] On almost any restaurant table in Europe you would find a little container with salt and pepper, the stuff is literally given away for free with a meal. 

[00:02:04] And most supermarkets have an extraordinary collection of spices, from cinnamon to oregano, nutmeg to lavender, it is possible to buy almost any spice for a relatively small amount of money.

[00:02:20] But it hasn’t always been like this. And indeed, spices, even the most common and cheapest today, used to be incredibly expensive, the preserve of the richest in society.

[00:02:35] The history of how they went from rich man’s luxury to something we can all sprinkle on our food is fascinating. 

[00:02:44] But before we dive right into the history, it’s worth asking ourselves what we actually mean by spices, where spices grow, and what spices actually are.

[00:02:56] To start off with, let’s clarify one thing. Salt is not a spice, it’s a mineral, it is Sodium Chloride. 

[00:03:04] A spice is part of a plant. It normally comes from the seed, from the bark, the fruit, or the root of the plant. It’s different from a herb, which typically comes from the leaves or flowers of a plant.

[00:03:19] And why do we eat spices? 

[00:03:23] Why do we put them on our food? 

[00:03:25] Well, because we like the taste, of course.

[00:03:28] Whether you are the sort of person who puts tonnes of chillies on their food and gets excited by a vindaloo curry, or if you are the sort of person who just likes a little bit of pepper with their food, almost everyone consumes some amount of spice. 

[00:03:45] And if you consider sugar to be a spice, which by some it is still considered to be a spice, then there is probably spice in almost everything you eat.

[00:03:56] To put it simply, spices make food taste better.

[00:04:00] How much spice you like on your food probably depends on where you are from, and where you grew up. 

[00:04:07] If you are from a northern European country, like I am, then you might have grown up eating not very much spicy food, and this is of course one of the great criticisms of much of northern-European food - that it doesn’t taste of anything.

[00:04:24] But if you are from, let’s say southern India, west Africa, or Mexico, then you are probably used to having a relatively spicy diet.

[00:04:35] There is, as you no doubt know already, a correlation between how close to the equator a country is, how hot that country is, and how much spice is traditionally used in its cuisine, in its cooking.

[00:04:50] Why, you might ask. 

[00:04:52] Well, there are several theories about this.

[00:04:55] The first and most obvious is that this is where spices grow, so obviously these cuisines had primary access to them, and they became part of the style of food preparation.

[00:05:10] There are also theories that using spices in food makes you sweat, and sweating helps you cool down (which of course is handy if you are living in a hot climate).

[00:05:23] Another theory is that, because spices contain antibacterial properties, they were used to preserve meat and food, which would go bad more quickly in hotter climates. 

[00:05:36] The theory goes that people who used spices on food tended to live for longer, because their food wouldn’t have bacteria in it, and they would teach their children to use spices to preserve food, and thus spice became part of their cuisine, and they developed a taste for it.

[00:05:55] While we might never know the real reason, and food historians still don’t agree on the reason for this, there was a clear division between the regions, between the parts of the world that had and used spices, and the regions that didn’t.

[00:06:12] And this division is key to our story, and helps us understand how the spice trade shaped the world we live in today.

[00:06:23] There is evidence of spices being prized, of them being highly valued, almost since the beginning of time. 

[00:06:31] When archaeologists were examining the mummified body of the Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses II, who died in 1224 BC, they found two peppercorns inside his nose.

[00:06:46] We know that the Egyptians would bury valuable possessions with their pharaohs, and this gives us an indication of the importance of pepper, over 3,000 years ago.

[00:06:59] The Romans and Greeks used any spices, and food flavourings, that they could get their hands on. 

[00:07:06] Roman soldiers would be paid partly in salt, giving us the word salary

[00:07:12] As we already clarified, salt is a mineral, not a spice, but Romans weren’t worrying too much about the distinctions between the two. 

[00:07:21] The point here is about quite how much value was placed on something that nowadays is practically free, or at least is a tiny cost for most people. 

[00:07:33] Certainly, I imagine if your employer was to suggest that part of your salary was to be paid in salt, you would probably not be too happy about it.

[00:07:45] In the Middle Ages, as the trade routes between Europe and the rest of the world started to develop, spices started flowing to Europe.

[00:07:55] And one spice in particular: pepper.

[00:07:58] In a world where different states all had different currencies, and where there was no centralised financial system, pepper also doubled up as a currency, as a borderless form of money.

[00:08:13] It kept for quite a long time, it didn’t go bad, and it was easy to weigh.

[00:08:20] For example, early in the 12th Century the Venetians, aware of the importance of staying on the right side of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, presented him with a gift of pepper that weighed 50 lb in weight, or 23 kilos. 

[00:08:38] You might think that a gift of 23 kilos worth of pepper wasn’t a great gift, but this was incredibly valuable, pepper was incredibly expensive compared to what pepper costs today.

[00:08:53] To give you an example of the change in cost and therefore affordability of pepper, here are some examples of how much it costs in terms of labour, of how long an average man would have to work to buy half a kilo of pepper.

[00:09:10] In England, in the year 1250, it would take an average manual labourer about a week to earn enough money to buy half a kilo of pepper. So this gift of 23 kilos of pepper would have been almost the annual salary of a manual labourer.

[00:09:27] By the year 1400 it would only take 2 days, so the cost of pepper had more than halved.

[00:09:35] This didn’t mean that most manual labourers would be able to afford pepper, but the cost had reduced, and it wasn’t completely out of reach.

[00:09:46] By the 16th century the cost had reduced further, and a bag of pepper was found preserved on the body of one of the sailors of the Mary Rose, the magnificent ship of King Henry VIII, which sank in the year 1545.

[00:10:03] In terms of the use of spices in Medieval England, they really were a status symbol

[00:10:09] Salt and pepper were expensive, and spices were a way of showing off your wealth, of showing off how rich you were.

[00:10:19] With it being a feudal society, one dominated by kings and queens at the top, and everyone else below in a sort of pyramid, this meant huge extravagant meals by the kings and queens, which were a way of displaying power and status

[00:10:37] The king and his followers literally consumed a high proportion of the spices brought from the East to London. 

[00:10:45] Take, for example, King Edward I, who was King of England from 1272 to 1307. 

[00:10:52] When he returned from fighting the neighbouring Welsh at the end of the 13th century, his officials spent over £1755 on spices – a huge sum at the time. 

[00:11:07] To help give you an idea of the scale of this, his spending on spice was similar to the total annual income of one of his top aristocrats, or earls – so, that's one of the 12 richest people in the kingdom of England at the time. 

[00:11:24] So in today’s money we are talking millions of euros, just on spices. 

[00:11:31] You might be asking yourself, why were spices so expensive, when they are so cheap now? 

[00:11:38] Why did it cost the equivalent of a week’s wages to buy half a kilo of pepper when it might take half an hour’s wages to buy it now?

[00:11:48] The main reason was because the supply of spices from the East to Europe was tightly controlled by traders. 

[00:11:56] Pepper would have come primarily from Kerala, in southern India. It would have been transported across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea, through Alexandria, and up to Venice.

[00:12:09] There was a large cost involved in the transportation, and lots of different merchants involved, each taking their cut, each taking their percentage, and each getting rich through the trade.

[00:12:22] Given how prized spices were, given how in demand and valuable these spices were, it was no surprise that various different European countries thought, “well, why don’t we just go to where the spices are and take them for ourselves?”

[00:12:41] The first European countries to make a real effort to do this were Spain and Portugal. 

[00:12:47] They had been forced to buy spices from the Venetian merchants, and thought if they could go directly to the source, they would be able to cut out the middleman and secure more spices at a better price.

[00:13:02] They were right.

[00:13:04] The Portuguese were the first, and in 1498 the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama set off from Europe to India, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa. 

[00:13:18] Much to his surprise, he discovered a highly sophisticated harvesting and trading operation: cinnamon and pepper were already the major exports from this fertile and beautiful part of India.

[00:13:32] Da Gama had found the source, and this was to be a huge blow for Arab traders.

[00:13:40] 6 years before Vasco Da Gama, another man had set off representing the Spanish King, King Ferdinand.

[00:13:48] That man was Christopher Columbus, and he too had been looking for a source of Indian spices.

[00:13:55] As we know, he didn’t find it, he went the wrong way and found the Americas instead, leaving India open to the Portuguese.

[00:14:05] The subsequent years saw different European countries squabble, battle for power over different spice-producing regions in south East Asia.

[00:14:16] A hotspot for this was a collection of around 1000 different islands in Indonesia called the Maluku Islands, better known as the Spice Islands.

[00:14:27] These islands saw fierce competition between the Portuguese and the Dutch, and as you might imagine, severe persecution of the local inhabitants, who were at best forced to harvest spices for little to no money, and at worst, brutally killed.

[00:14:47] In 1609, the British also got involved, taking over control of one of the islands, and threatening to disrupt the Dutch monopoly

[00:14:58] The Dutch, eager to maintain their monopoly, later offered to give the British an island on the other side of the world in exchange for leaving one of The Spice Islands they had under their control.

[00:15:11] What was the island that the Dutch offered the British, you might be asking yourself?

[00:15:16] It was a small island just off the east coast of America called Manhattan. 

[00:15:24] This must surely go down as one of the greatest swaps in history, a great bargain for the British.

[00:15:32] As trade routes developed even further, and traders realised that spices could be grown elsewhere, prices started to fall, and not only did the spice trade become not as immensely profitable as it previously had been, but spices became more and more affordable to normal people in society.

[00:15:54] Britain was left with Manhattan, which is now one of the most valuable pieces of land in the world. The Dutch were left with Pulau Run, an island which is not particularly valuable.

[00:16:06] Of course, a lot of this early spice trade was enabled by colonialism, and its ugly twin, slavery. 

[00:16:14] From cinnamon to sugar, slaves were involved with the production of much of these spices that Europeans enjoyed on their plates. 

[00:16:23] It is, perhaps, even more horrifying when you consider that many spices have zero nutritional value; they just make your food taste nicer.

[00:16:33] Now, let’s return to the modern day, and consider some of the implications of the spice trade.

[00:16:41] Nowadays, spices are ubiquitous, they are everywhere, and–with a few exceptions–they are incredibly cheap. 

[00:16:49] India is still the world’s centre for spice production, producing around 75% of all of the world’s spices. 

[00:16:58] And the global spice market is valued at around $13 billion dollars. 

[00:17:03] It might sound like a lot, but when you think about the fact that spice is something that a majority of the people on the planet consumes in some shape or form at least once a day, it gives you an indication of quite how cheap spices really are.

[00:17:21] So, the curious history of spice is of something that was an expensive addition to food for pharaohs, an exotic luxury of kings, of parts of a plant worth so much that countries literally went to war over them. 

[00:17:37] Yet now they are very cheap, if you go to a European city you are more likely to find piles of spices in small low-cost grocery shops rather than luxury boutiques.

[00:17:50] But spices are an instrumental part of our history. 

[00:17:53] Their high prices encouraged merchants to make long journeys to bring them from East to West, and in doing so they enabled connections, the sharing of ideas between people of different cultures, and the start of the system of global trade that we are all beneficiaries of today.

[00:18:13] And of course let’s not forget that they make everything taste just so much better.

[00:18:22] OK then, that is it for the curious history of spice.

[00:18:26] It is a really interesting subject, and I think it’s fascinating to consider how something that used to be such a luxury is available to a large proportion of people in the world, at a very affordable price.

[00:18:40] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:18:44] How spicy do you like your food? How has the cuisine of the country you are from been influenced by spice?

[00:18:52] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:01] And as a final reminder, if you enjoyed this episode, and you are wondering where to get all of our bonus episodes, plus the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:19:17] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:22] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Curious History of Spice.

[00:00:29] In this episode we will learn about what spices actually are, why they became so popular, when countries literally went to war over them, and the impact that the spice trade had on the world we live in today.

[00:00:45] It is a really interesting topic, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:00:49] Before we get right into today’s episode, I want to remind you that you can become a member of Leonardo English and follow along with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:05] Membership of Leonardo English gives you access to all of our learning materials, all of our bonus episodes, so that’s more than 160 different episodes now, as well as two new ones every week, plus access to our private community where we do live events, challenges, and much, much more.

[00:01:25] Our community now has members from over 50 countries, and it's my mission to make it the most interesting place for curious people like you to improve their English.

[00:01:36] So, if that is of interest, - and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:45] Now, if there is one thing we probably all take for granted in life, it is spice.

[00:01:54] On almost any restaurant table in Europe you would find a little container with salt and pepper, the stuff is literally given away for free with a meal. 

[00:02:04] And most supermarkets have an extraordinary collection of spices, from cinnamon to oregano, nutmeg to lavender, it is possible to buy almost any spice for a relatively small amount of money.

[00:02:20] But it hasn’t always been like this. And indeed, spices, even the most common and cheapest today, used to be incredibly expensive, the preserve of the richest in society.

[00:02:35] The history of how they went from rich man’s luxury to something we can all sprinkle on our food is fascinating. 

[00:02:44] But before we dive right into the history, it’s worth asking ourselves what we actually mean by spices, where spices grow, and what spices actually are.

[00:02:56] To start off with, let’s clarify one thing. Salt is not a spice, it’s a mineral, it is Sodium Chloride. 

[00:03:04] A spice is part of a plant. It normally comes from the seed, from the bark, the fruit, or the root of the plant. It’s different from a herb, which typically comes from the leaves or flowers of a plant.

[00:03:19] And why do we eat spices? 

[00:03:23] Why do we put them on our food? 

[00:03:25] Well, because we like the taste, of course.

[00:03:28] Whether you are the sort of person who puts tonnes of chillies on their food and gets excited by a vindaloo curry, or if you are the sort of person who just likes a little bit of pepper with their food, almost everyone consumes some amount of spice. 

[00:03:45] And if you consider sugar to be a spice, which by some it is still considered to be a spice, then there is probably spice in almost everything you eat.

[00:03:56] To put it simply, spices make food taste better.

[00:04:00] How much spice you like on your food probably depends on where you are from, and where you grew up. 

[00:04:07] If you are from a northern European country, like I am, then you might have grown up eating not very much spicy food, and this is of course one of the great criticisms of much of northern-European food - that it doesn’t taste of anything.

[00:04:24] But if you are from, let’s say southern India, west Africa, or Mexico, then you are probably used to having a relatively spicy diet.

[00:04:35] There is, as you no doubt know already, a correlation between how close to the equator a country is, how hot that country is, and how much spice is traditionally used in its cuisine, in its cooking.

[00:04:50] Why, you might ask. 

[00:04:52] Well, there are several theories about this.

[00:04:55] The first and most obvious is that this is where spices grow, so obviously these cuisines had primary access to them, and they became part of the style of food preparation.

[00:05:10] There are also theories that using spices in food makes you sweat, and sweating helps you cool down (which of course is handy if you are living in a hot climate).

[00:05:23] Another theory is that, because spices contain antibacterial properties, they were used to preserve meat and food, which would go bad more quickly in hotter climates. 

[00:05:36] The theory goes that people who used spices on food tended to live for longer, because their food wouldn’t have bacteria in it, and they would teach their children to use spices to preserve food, and thus spice became part of their cuisine, and they developed a taste for it.

[00:05:55] While we might never know the real reason, and food historians still don’t agree on the reason for this, there was a clear division between the regions, between the parts of the world that had and used spices, and the regions that didn’t.

[00:06:12] And this division is key to our story, and helps us understand how the spice trade shaped the world we live in today.

[00:06:23] There is evidence of spices being prized, of them being highly valued, almost since the beginning of time. 

[00:06:31] When archaeologists were examining the mummified body of the Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses II, who died in 1224 BC, they found two peppercorns inside his nose.

[00:06:46] We know that the Egyptians would bury valuable possessions with their pharaohs, and this gives us an indication of the importance of pepper, over 3,000 years ago.

[00:06:59] The Romans and Greeks used any spices, and food flavourings, that they could get their hands on. 

[00:07:06] Roman soldiers would be paid partly in salt, giving us the word salary

[00:07:12] As we already clarified, salt is a mineral, not a spice, but Romans weren’t worrying too much about the distinctions between the two. 

[00:07:21] The point here is about quite how much value was placed on something that nowadays is practically free, or at least is a tiny cost for most people. 

[00:07:33] Certainly, I imagine if your employer was to suggest that part of your salary was to be paid in salt, you would probably not be too happy about it.

[00:07:45] In the Middle Ages, as the trade routes between Europe and the rest of the world started to develop, spices started flowing to Europe.

[00:07:55] And one spice in particular: pepper.

[00:07:58] In a world where different states all had different currencies, and where there was no centralised financial system, pepper also doubled up as a currency, as a borderless form of money.

[00:08:13] It kept for quite a long time, it didn’t go bad, and it was easy to weigh.

[00:08:20] For example, early in the 12th Century the Venetians, aware of the importance of staying on the right side of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, presented him with a gift of pepper that weighed 50 lb in weight, or 23 kilos. 

[00:08:38] You might think that a gift of 23 kilos worth of pepper wasn’t a great gift, but this was incredibly valuable, pepper was incredibly expensive compared to what pepper costs today.

[00:08:53] To give you an example of the change in cost and therefore affordability of pepper, here are some examples of how much it costs in terms of labour, of how long an average man would have to work to buy half a kilo of pepper.

[00:09:10] In England, in the year 1250, it would take an average manual labourer about a week to earn enough money to buy half a kilo of pepper. So this gift of 23 kilos of pepper would have been almost the annual salary of a manual labourer.

[00:09:27] By the year 1400 it would only take 2 days, so the cost of pepper had more than halved.

[00:09:35] This didn’t mean that most manual labourers would be able to afford pepper, but the cost had reduced, and it wasn’t completely out of reach.

[00:09:46] By the 16th century the cost had reduced further, and a bag of pepper was found preserved on the body of one of the sailors of the Mary Rose, the magnificent ship of King Henry VIII, which sank in the year 1545.

[00:10:03] In terms of the use of spices in Medieval England, they really were a status symbol

[00:10:09] Salt and pepper were expensive, and spices were a way of showing off your wealth, of showing off how rich you were.

[00:10:19] With it being a feudal society, one dominated by kings and queens at the top, and everyone else below in a sort of pyramid, this meant huge extravagant meals by the kings and queens, which were a way of displaying power and status

[00:10:37] The king and his followers literally consumed a high proportion of the spices brought from the East to London. 

[00:10:45] Take, for example, King Edward I, who was King of England from 1272 to 1307. 

[00:10:52] When he returned from fighting the neighbouring Welsh at the end of the 13th century, his officials spent over £1755 on spices – a huge sum at the time. 

[00:11:07] To help give you an idea of the scale of this, his spending on spice was similar to the total annual income of one of his top aristocrats, or earls – so, that's one of the 12 richest people in the kingdom of England at the time. 

[00:11:24] So in today’s money we are talking millions of euros, just on spices. 

[00:11:31] You might be asking yourself, why were spices so expensive, when they are so cheap now? 

[00:11:38] Why did it cost the equivalent of a week’s wages to buy half a kilo of pepper when it might take half an hour’s wages to buy it now?

[00:11:48] The main reason was because the supply of spices from the East to Europe was tightly controlled by traders. 

[00:11:56] Pepper would have come primarily from Kerala, in southern India. It would have been transported across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea, through Alexandria, and up to Venice.

[00:12:09] There was a large cost involved in the transportation, and lots of different merchants involved, each taking their cut, each taking their percentage, and each getting rich through the trade.

[00:12:22] Given how prized spices were, given how in demand and valuable these spices were, it was no surprise that various different European countries thought, “well, why don’t we just go to where the spices are and take them for ourselves?”

[00:12:41] The first European countries to make a real effort to do this were Spain and Portugal. 

[00:12:47] They had been forced to buy spices from the Venetian merchants, and thought if they could go directly to the source, they would be able to cut out the middleman and secure more spices at a better price.

[00:13:02] They were right.

[00:13:04] The Portuguese were the first, and in 1498 the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama set off from Europe to India, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa. 

[00:13:18] Much to his surprise, he discovered a highly sophisticated harvesting and trading operation: cinnamon and pepper were already the major exports from this fertile and beautiful part of India.

[00:13:32] Da Gama had found the source, and this was to be a huge blow for Arab traders.

[00:13:40] 6 years before Vasco Da Gama, another man had set off representing the Spanish King, King Ferdinand.

[00:13:48] That man was Christopher Columbus, and he too had been looking for a source of Indian spices.

[00:13:55] As we know, he didn’t find it, he went the wrong way and found the Americas instead, leaving India open to the Portuguese.

[00:14:05] The subsequent years saw different European countries squabble, battle for power over different spice-producing regions in south East Asia.

[00:14:16] A hotspot for this was a collection of around 1000 different islands in Indonesia called the Maluku Islands, better known as the Spice Islands.

[00:14:27] These islands saw fierce competition between the Portuguese and the Dutch, and as you might imagine, severe persecution of the local inhabitants, who were at best forced to harvest spices for little to no money, and at worst, brutally killed.

[00:14:47] In 1609, the British also got involved, taking over control of one of the islands, and threatening to disrupt the Dutch monopoly

[00:14:58] The Dutch, eager to maintain their monopoly, later offered to give the British an island on the other side of the world in exchange for leaving one of The Spice Islands they had under their control.

[00:15:11] What was the island that the Dutch offered the British, you might be asking yourself?

[00:15:16] It was a small island just off the east coast of America called Manhattan. 

[00:15:24] This must surely go down as one of the greatest swaps in history, a great bargain for the British.

[00:15:32] As trade routes developed even further, and traders realised that spices could be grown elsewhere, prices started to fall, and not only did the spice trade become not as immensely profitable as it previously had been, but spices became more and more affordable to normal people in society.

[00:15:54] Britain was left with Manhattan, which is now one of the most valuable pieces of land in the world. The Dutch were left with Pulau Run, an island which is not particularly valuable.

[00:16:06] Of course, a lot of this early spice trade was enabled by colonialism, and its ugly twin, slavery. 

[00:16:14] From cinnamon to sugar, slaves were involved with the production of much of these spices that Europeans enjoyed on their plates. 

[00:16:23] It is, perhaps, even more horrifying when you consider that many spices have zero nutritional value; they just make your food taste nicer.

[00:16:33] Now, let’s return to the modern day, and consider some of the implications of the spice trade.

[00:16:41] Nowadays, spices are ubiquitous, they are everywhere, and–with a few exceptions–they are incredibly cheap. 

[00:16:49] India is still the world’s centre for spice production, producing around 75% of all of the world’s spices. 

[00:16:58] And the global spice market is valued at around $13 billion dollars. 

[00:17:03] It might sound like a lot, but when you think about the fact that spice is something that a majority of the people on the planet consumes in some shape or form at least once a day, it gives you an indication of quite how cheap spices really are.

[00:17:21] So, the curious history of spice is of something that was an expensive addition to food for pharaohs, an exotic luxury of kings, of parts of a plant worth so much that countries literally went to war over them. 

[00:17:37] Yet now they are very cheap, if you go to a European city you are more likely to find piles of spices in small low-cost grocery shops rather than luxury boutiques.

[00:17:50] But spices are an instrumental part of our history. 

[00:17:53] Their high prices encouraged merchants to make long journeys to bring them from East to West, and in doing so they enabled connections, the sharing of ideas between people of different cultures, and the start of the system of global trade that we are all beneficiaries of today.

[00:18:13] And of course let’s not forget that they make everything taste just so much better.

[00:18:22] OK then, that is it for the curious history of spice.

[00:18:26] It is a really interesting subject, and I think it’s fascinating to consider how something that used to be such a luxury is available to a large proportion of people in the world, at a very affordable price.

[00:18:40] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:18:44] How spicy do you like your food? How has the cuisine of the country you are from been influenced by spice?

[00:18:52] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:01] And as a final reminder, if you enjoyed this episode, and you are wondering where to get all of our bonus episodes, plus the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:19:17] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:22] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]