Michael Krondl's The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice is a unique contribution to the history of the spice trade. The three great cities referred to in the title were first Venice, then Lisbon, and later Amsterdam, each having been the dominant center for the spice trade at particular times, starting from the time of the Crusades, continuing through the Renaissance and finally into the modern age. Krondl traces the history of how each city rose to dominate the spice trade and then later lost that position of dominance. In each section, he also takes us on a modern day walking tour of each city, describing what they were like in their glory days and then what they are like today, in the case of Venice and Lisbon with little remaining to remind their inhabitants or visitors of the power they commanded in centuries past. But even so, Krondl manages to seek out a number of fascinating individuals who manage to keep at least some piece of this rich history alive, whether it's by recreating the period dishes as they were once served or building recreations of the ships that were used to haul the empire-building cargoes from halfway around the world.
Unlike most authors who write on history, Krondl comes to the subject with the insights of a professional chef and a repected authority on food. The value of his insights becomes particularly clear when he addresses questions like what Europeans wanted spices for, the differentiations between the different levels of society, why spices commanded the prices they did, and why the demand for spices rose and fell over the centuries. In particular, he quickly dispenses with two of the more common legends about medieval Europe's usage of spices: (1) that they used spices to cover the taste of rotting meat, and (2) that they spiced their food at levels beyond modern comprehension.
"A great deal of nonsense has been written by highly knowledgeable people about Europeans' desire for spices. Economic historians of the spice trade... will typically begin their weighty tomes by mentioning, almost in passing, the self-evident fact that Europeans needed spices as a preservative or to cover up the taste of rancid food. This is supposed to explain the demand that sent the Europeans off to conquer the world. Of course, the experts then quickly move on to devote the rest of their study to an intricate analysis of the supply side of the equation. But did wealthy Europeans sprinkle their swan and peacock pies with cinnamon and pepper because their meat was rank? The idea is an affront to common sense, to say nothing of the fact that it completely contradicts what's written in the old cookbooks."
Krondl proceeds to draw on period sources show how spices were never used as preservatives, and also makes the common sense point that anyone rich enough to afford expensive imported spices was certainly rich enough to afford fresh meat. He also shows how the assumption that medieval Europeans consumed gargantuan levels of spices was based on interpretations of medieval recipes made by people who simply did not understand how much food was being prepared and for how many people.
"It may simply be that most historians just don't know how to cook for a crowd. A quick glance, for example, at a recipe for ambrosino, a kind of chicken stew with dried fruit, would lead you to believe that a dozen guests will be consuming a dish seaoned with almost half a pound of spices (mostly ginger and cinnamon but also some bay leaves and a very small quantity of nutmeg, saffron, and cloves), in addition to a little more saffron and nutmeg. The problem with this analysis is that there is no way twelve people could eat this much food.... the medieval tables of the wealthy were enormous smorgasbords where only a small portion of the food was likely to be eaten by the guests."
The book is rich in all kinds of details, with Krondl pointing out how the spice trade was actually the first step towards truly global trade and how, in the case of Amsterdam, it resulted in the creation of the first modern corporation, the Dutch East India company. One of the more interesting points Krondl makes is the effect of religion on the spice trade as changes in religious attitudes affected the demand for spices:
"Spices came into this religious framework rather indirectly.... In general, the church did not particularly approve of spiced food, especially when cinnamon and ginger were added purely for reasons of taste.... When taken for 'medical' purposes, however, the use of spices was more excusable. Moreover, theological antipathy to the Asian imports waxed and waned. In the early Middle Ages, cinnamon and other aromatics were actually brewed up into an anointing oil used in church sacraments, but by Wycliffe's day, spices were more likely to show up on a bishop's pot roast than on his altar. The early medieval emphasis on mortification of the body was losing much of its appeal in those later years. Certainly, most of the Renaissance popes had no issues with pursuits of the flesh -- culinary or otherwise. But then this is what led to the Protestant reacion, after all. To Martin Luther and his fellow travellers, the Roman church was a cesspool of corruption and moral turpitude; Christianity could be purified only by returning to its simpler origins. The abolition of pleasure, whether in the form of exotically spiced dishes or public baths where the genders mixed, was placed high on the new puritan agenda. Unfortunately, the Catholic reaction to this was to become even more puritan than the puritans, with sex and cooking falling as sacrifical lambs to the Counter-Reformation. Not that the religious reformers managed to ban fun entirely. People still licked their chops with pleasure, but now they worried more about going to hell for it."
--"Even more indirectly, the popularity of spices fell victim to the religious conflits that wracked Europe during the years of the Reformation and its Catholic response. The split in Christendom affected life far beyond the limits of Sunday morning.... Whereas once medieval Europe had adhered to a common Catholic religion, a common Latin language, and common well-spiced cuisine (at least, for the elite), the balkanization of the Christian world along national lines now meant that nations could no longer gather around the same table as easily as before. Even though it would take some years, the Europe-wide fashion for spices -- as much as Latin -- would be a casualty of Martin Luther's squabble with the bishop of Rome."
Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of the spice trade or in the history of food and popular cusine over the centuries.