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.
on 22 August 2010
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. What we now use as hot sauces (peppers, not peppercorns) came from America, not Asia. Krondl does not consider the economic effects. While the supervisory board of the VOC was burning peppercorns in Amsterdam (there's such a thing as oversupply, especially with a monopoly) a river of specie (mostly silver) was flowing east, there being no great market for wool in the tropics. Did this monetary deflation help or hinder economic development? The question is not considered in this book.
The decline of Amsterdam meant the rise of London and London is now eclipsed by Baltimore, where the largest industrial combine has its headquarters making sauces for MacDo, Colonel Sanders and most microwave dishes. We seem to be eating per head more spice than the grossest renaissance potentate. Why? Historians have traditionally explained the craving for spice by the deterioration of meat before the invention of refrigeration. This is nonsense, of course, and Krondl is right to point it out. Cellars in Northern Europe are at around 8 degreesC year round, quite capable of preserving meat which needs to be hung for enough time. Modern fridges operate at 5 degrees as standard, not a big difference, and if you were rich enough to eat meat in the 1500s, you were rich enough to kill it when you needed it.
In short, the spice trade seems to have been no more than a craze, like gin to Hogarth.
As an epilogue, the author visits an agricultural research institute in Kerala, Here some rural spice cowboys persuade him of the merits of organic pepper harvesting and the virtues of turmeric, a spice known as the poor man's saffron (known in Europe well before turmeric). Turmeric is touted as an antioxidant capable of curing leukemia, pancreatic cancer, diabetes and breast cancer in mice (all six of them). Trouble is, not a single double blind clinical trial has given any support to these fantastic claims, which Krondl swallows whole.
Don't let me put you off this book. It's well written. Shame that it's mostly tosh.