My review is a lot less detailed than the other one here. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Yes, some of the history has to be taken with a pinch of salt and the book does weaken a little towards the end. Nevertheless a very interesting account of the role of spices in western cooking, the history of its trade and the cities that were involved in it. Read it as an adjunct to William Bernstein's opus, A Splendid Exchange.
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Feeling peckish? Let's go back in time and make a banquet. We'll roast a heron in ginger and mace, then stick its feathers back on when it comes to the table. For added realism we'll poach an eel in vinegar and cloves, then put it in the heron's beak. We'll serve 36 equally exotic dishes at the same meal. Michael Krondl, an American celebrity chef, goes in search of the cuisine of yesteryear. Being more of a meat and potatoes person, I feel happier to leave those cookbooks where they belong: in the past. The author is a genial and agreeable companion, and writes fluidly and amusingly. He even agrees that Venetian ships biscuit is a delicacy. Sorry, ships biscuit is what it says on the sack: something designed to last, and be nutritious. The Venetians were replaced by the Portuguese as masters of the spice trade. Why is the author surprised? Portugal had been exploring south, and once the Cape of Good Hope was rounded, the stage was set to cut out the the Arabian middleman. There is no surprise, no mystery: Portugal's population doubled in the era of imperial expansion, the royal revenue increased 6.000 times. (These are historical facts not mentioned in the book.) Of course, the Iberian monarchies led the world in managing to go bust in the midst of a torrent of gold, so the baton passed to the Netherlands. Here we see a genuine European innovation: the joint stock company. (And a monopoly to go with it.) In Amsterdam the spice trade reached its zenith, but also its nemesis, and the author is obliged to consider some uncomfortable possibilities. Did Europe ever need the spice trade? Garam (the classic rotten fish sauce, now known to UK readers as Lea&Perrins) horseradish, capers, mustard... these were all used before we got pepper, mace, nutmeg and cinnamon.Read more ›
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
a well-seasoned & highly recommended adventure11 Nov 2007
M. J. Williams
- Published on Amazon.com
This book was a total pleasure to read ... highly recommended ... made me hungry for scents, flavors and travel! It's in the vein of Kurlansky's "Cod" and "Salt" books, and was even a bit better than "Salt". It's filled with many, many interesting stories, great people, and delicious meals. I'd also recommend the author's companion website for the book (spicehistory.net) ... more pictures, info, and some terrific-sounding recipes.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Remarkable insights on the history of the spice trade from someone who actually understands food10 May 2010
Whitt Patrick Pond
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Not that bad4 Jan 2010
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
Based on the NPR interview, I was excited to get this. There are a few nuggets of history, but it is more for food-lover's bookshelf than a history lover's.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
A spicy history of the age of discovery1 Jan 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
If you haven't thought about Vasco da Gama, or the age of discovery since grade school, you will be surprised at all the spicy parts that the textbooks left out. Here is a history of the three main powers at the time in succession -- Venice, Portugal, and Amsterdam -- including all the bloodiness and debauchery. Along the way, Krondl invites us into the homes of people of the time, describing what and how they ate in careful and tantalizing detail. He also shows us how various taste trends starting in medieval times affected the course of history, laying the groundwork for the global economy, multinational conglomerates and even slavery. An excellent read for foodies, history buffs, and anyone who wants to know more about what seasons our food today and why.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
A peek inside the book while learning history that you thought was boring24 Oct 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
After reading the book, I felt I was reading another James Burke "Connections" chapter. Venice began its sea trade with salt evaporation ponds while northern Europe was using salt mines. Venice dominated trade with the Middle East from 1330-1571.
P.46 "The trade network that resulted involved anything that could be loaded onto a vessel. So Bohemian silver might be exchanged for Slavic slaves in the Crimea, who were in turn traded for pepper in Alexandrea which was then bartered for Florentine wool in Venice, from whence it was shipped to Trebizond and sold for ginger, which could be used to buy Apulian grain in the south of Italy and sent to Venice, where it then fetched a good price in Bohemian silver. Consequently Venetian merchants, no matter what was in their ship's hold benefited from the bases established to further the pepper trade. As in Byzantium, the European definition of what was called a spice was rather loose in those days, encompassing perfumes, medicines, and even dyes along with the likes of cinnamon and ginger."
Lisbon wanted a sea route to spice suppliers because overland made it too expensive. Mariners worked their way down the African coast until they rounded it and got into the Indian Ocean. Trading posts were established in India and beyond. At the same time war broke out against the Ottomans and Venice spice imports dropped to a third. The Portuguese brought in 5 times that. The profit for the king was twice that of gold coming from Africa. The Portuguese shipped large volumes of pepper but also nutmeg from the Indonesian islands. The heyday was 1500-1600. This was the time when the aristocracy would put spices out at banquets to give the air a pleasant smell. You showed that you were part of the upper class by liberally using spices because there weren't many other items available.
Amsterdam comes into the picture because of many changes in Europe. The Dutch sided with the Protestants which got rid of fish eating Fridays and Lent. The Portuguese royal family died out and was replaced by the Spanish who didn't care about the fleet as they were heavily invested in the Americas for gold, silver, and spices there. Spain put an embargo on trade with the northern Protestant Europe. And the Dutch were at war with the Spanish. So the Dutch formed the Dutch East India Company and around 1600 armed their merchant fleet and went out to get rid of any Portuguese ships they came across in their journeys to the same ports. In time the Dutch dominated the trade.
P.193 "In Holland, you find nutmeg sprinkled on asparagus, red cabbage scented with cloves, sausage rolls flavored with mace, and even eel topped with cinnamon." Meats were seasoned with exotic spices not just salt and pepper. "Even the cheese for which Holland is justly famous can be flavored with astonishing quantities of spice."
The Dutch became rich selling to England, Scandinavia, and Germany. Spices help flavor and preserve dried foods (some used on ocean voyages for the crew), as medicines, and in regular cooking. In the Far East the Dutch had the exclusive trade rights with Japan. Japanese silver and gold were traded to India and China for silk, cotton, porcelain, and textiles which were traded for spices and then all the remaining items sailed to Europe.
Comments by the author about recipes from these eras compared to today really help you picture life in those times. And you know more about the spices in the food you buy at the grocery today. Another fascinating book in the same genre is "Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky.