Ships set on sail trailing the scented route of the flower. They navigated the rough seas and fought battles to take home a chest full of these flowerets.
In case you are wondering what this is, we are talking about cloves. We know cloves as a dry, brown aromatic spice. Actually, they are the dried unopened crimson flower buds of the clove tree, an evergreen, scientifically known as cenkeh. The buds are picked much before they bloom, and are initially green before they end up sporting shades of brown, which we are familiar with.
This interesting floral trail unfolded as I pursued the spice route. That’s understandable because cloves were one of the first spices to be traded during the maritime route. There’s a belief that cloves are at their best when they are grown along the coastal belt. The rich aromatic smell of the cloves attracted explorers from far and wide. Friends, hop on to the Clove Route along with me.
Though small in size, cloves are very popular among all spices. Cloves resemble a nail and derive their name from the Latin word clavus, which means nail. Scientifically they are called Syzygium aromaticum and also identified as Eugenia caryophyllata.
Cloves were in existence before the birth of Christ, and originally belonged to the Spice Islands of Indonesia or Moluccas. Ternate, an island in the Maluku Islands (Moluccas) of eastern Indonesia, was the key clove-growing region. The place was dotted with clove trees, because whenever a child was born the natives planted a tree. Its scent caught on with other parts of the world like the Arabs who were intrigued by this spice. They unloaded chests of this luxury spice in Alexandria, and later in European markets. That was in the fourth century.
The Clove Route can be traced from Maluku and Philippines to China and the Strait of Malacca, before they made it to India and the western world. UNESCO recognizes this trail as part of the ancient maritime spice route. Like the spice route, the clove route also strengthened India’s ties with the western world.
Though Europeans had already tasted the spice, Europe witnessed the full impact of cloves when the sea routes opened out. Cloves caught on with the Portuguese when explorer-navigator Ferdinand Magellan’s ship landed with cloves and nutmeg in 1522. The Portuguese entered into a liaison with the Sultan of Ternate. They set up warehouses to collect and store cloves to be shipped back to Europe. The Portuguese took charge of the Indian Ocean trade and brought cloves, which were sold at an astronomical price in distant shores in Europe.
After the Portuguese monopolized the clove trade for 100 years, Dutch took over in the 17th century. The Dutch East India Company eventually paved the way for the English East India Company to network with Moluccas.
Cloves were held in high esteem, and the ancient Romans treasured it like a prized possession. History has it that commoners chewed clove flowerets to camouflage bad breath before addressing the Chinese emperors of the Han Dynasty.
Cut to the present. Zanzibar, in Eastern Africa, leads other countries as the top producer of cloves. Of course, these are commercially grown in other parts of the world like West Indies, Brazil, Pemba, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Madagascar and in India in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Over the centuries, cloves have become an integral part of Indian, Moroccan, Arabic and Sri Lankan cuisine, among others. Cloves pack in an intense flavour and assertive taste to sweets and savouries as well. A handful of cloves add that wow-element to desserts, salads and ketchup, apart from enhancing ginger breads and baked beans. Little wonder that culinary experts always stock cloves in their kitchen closet.
Cloves rank among the most valuable spices, recognised for their culinary signature touch, sought after for a throbbing toothache, hailed as a mild anesthetic and used sparingly in the making of perfumes. Whether it’s our food or oral dental care, hint of cloves make all the difference.