Search for cloves spices up history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 October, 1999, 12:00am

Take veel or motton and cut it into gobbets. Seepe it in gode broth, toss in herbe with gode wyne, quantite of onyons minced, powder-forte, and safroun, and layer it with eggs and verjuice. But let not seep after.


IT is hard to imagine that a simple recipe could have so much human blood in its making. But the clue is in the 'powder-forte' - a heady mix of ground cinnamon, ginger and cloves - and the implications of the medieval European passion for it can still be seen today.


It is there in the weeping in Dili, the fighting in Ambon, the monolithic sculpture-building in Macau . . . and the frenzy of New York.


Spices were popular even in Roman times, although observers like Pliny could not see the attraction.


'Pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation: its only desirable quality being a certain pungency, and yet it is for this we import it all the way from India,' he mused.


Yet for cloves, 15 centuries later, greater sacrifices would be made.


Some claim the Medievals valued the curry because it hid the taste of rotten meat. Which is true, but the full reasons that cloves were more expensive than gold are more complicated and less pragmatic.


In the Middle Ages, there were stories of mysterious spice islands beyond India.


If advertising campaigns had been invented by then, we could imagine the slogans: 'Taste the bounty . . . prepare partridges with pinches of paradise'.


Nobody east of Aden had seen the islands: the Europeans bought the scented cargoes from Venice, the Venetians swapped them for glass in Constantinople (now Istanbul), the Byzantine traders got them from the Arabs, who bought them from the Calicut Indians. They bought them from sea gypsies who took them at knockdown prices from orchard owners on nine tiny islands in the Moluccas.


This worked for centuries, and the Europeans even enjoyed the huge mark-ups.


Cloves and nutmeg had become status symbols: the caviar of their times. After all, the more pepper with the entrees, the richer the hosts.


But in 1453, Constantinople fell to the infidels. As the Turks closed the doors on the Silk and Spice Roads, the European food industry was in trouble.


People were clamouring for cloves, and the Portuguese - with their advanced astrolabe technology and a naval capacity honed by centuries of warfare against the Muslims - were the first to heed the call.


The Spanish were also on the clove-path, although they went the other way, and their Italian captain, Christopher Columbus, found America instead.


The pope asked the rivals of the Iberian peninsula to imagine a line drawn north to south about 340 leagues (about 1,600 kilometres) west of the Cape Verde Islands.


The Spaniards could have anything to the west, the Portuguese could take their pickings to the east.


With the world map drawn roughly on paper - Africa as a triangle with a point no Europeans had yet passed - in 1498 Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama found himself in the Indian Ocean, having named the province of Natal after Christmas Day.


After that, the 16th century was a blaze of territory-taking. In 1510 Alfonso de Albuquerque took Goa; the year after, they had Malacca after a blockade, and by 1513 they reached the volcanic and scented Bandas islands.


The Portuguese never got the monopoly they craved. First they had to battle their old rivals the Muslims, then their other old rivals the Spanish sailed in, keeping a presence in the Moluccas until 1570 when they moved on to the Philippines.


Soon the British and Sir Francis Drake arrived and then the fearsome Dutch.


Meanwhile, the relatively peaceful past of the Spice islanders - disturbed only by occasional sea gypsy raids - gave way to a desperately unhappy future.


The tradition of the islanders was to grow a clove tree for every child that was born. The family would look after the tree for it housed the spirit of the child. But careless of the customs, interested only in high prices in distant European markets, the Dutch uprooted the trees.


Perhaps the legends were right, for almost all of the children protected by the trees were taken into slavery or threw themselves off the cliffs in desperation.


The ones who stayed were banned from growing cloves under pain of death: until 1824 they were subject to violent 'kora kora' raids to uproot unlicensed trees and murder their owners.


Tastes were to change: fresher meat became available in Europe, 18th-century adventurers smuggled out the saplings and started rival supplies in Zanzibar. And spice prices were to fall.


But it was this hunger that gave the Portuguese a toehold in Asia that only officially ends this year when - 10 days before the end of the millennium - Macau hands its reins of power back to China.


But unofficially there is still plenty of unfinished business. The friction between the Portuguese and the Dutch over a sandalwood island called East in the local dialect was to frame the conflict between the East Timorese and the Indonesians.


The Indonesians had claimed Dutch West Timor in the Hague Agreement of 1949, but the military regime then took the Portuguese colony of East Timor in a bloody coup in 1975.


The bloodshed and fear, the refugees and tears that we have seen this year as East Timor tries to reclaim its independence once again, are all legacies of that innocent mutton stew served up in a manor house somewhere in Kent or Tuscany so many centuries ago.


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