There are a lot of spicy nuggets in Clifford A. Wright’s article, “The Medieval Spice Trade and the Diffusion of the Chile,” which appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Gastronomica (No. 72, pp. 35-43).
The chile, he writes, “is the world’s most used spice,” especially in “the fourteen culinary cultures [that] can be characterized as highly piquant. These cultures”—among them West Africa, Algeria, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Yemen, the Indian subcontinent, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Sichuan region of China—“have absorbed the chile into their local foodways and use it abundantly.” All were stops along the trail as the chile traveled from its home in Mexico and South America to other parts of the globe. But what happened to Europe where the market for spices was insatiable?
Wright tackles a question that has long perplexed food historians: “Did the arrival of the New World chile in the Old World contribute to or cause the dramatic decline in the spice trade that occurred in the mid-seventeenth century?” From the eleventh to the sixteenth century, pungent spices like black pepper and ginger were the backbone of the highly lucrative trade between Europe and the far off countries where they were grown. Yet just as the fiery chile pepper—the Marquis of Langle described it as a “fruit” which “leaves your mouth burning, and your breath on fire for the rest of the day”--made its way into Spain, Italy and Portugal, European demand for traditional spices began to wither.
Wright concludes that the two events were coincidental: “…the plant does not seem to have had a dramatic, instantaneous, or measurable effect on the East-West spice trade which was dominated by black pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Although the rapid introduction of the chile around the world coincided with the diminishing of the spice trade, the phenomenon can be equally attributed to changing tastes: western Europe became less interested in highly spiced foods and more enamored of the sophisticated cooking emerging in France in the mid-seventeenth century, especially after La Varenne published La Cuisine Francois in 1652.”
There are many other tantalizing side trails in Wright’s article, among them a succinct analysis of the lingering effects of the Dutch stranglehold on the spice trade in Indonesia. “The Dutch policy was to plant and then destroy crops through mass uprooting. This policy…certainly kept prices high in Europe, but its local cost was the cruel treatment of the indigenous peoples, including thousands of deaths, the destruction of incomes, bankruptcies, rebellions and starvation—leading to endemic poverty and, some would argue, an easy acceptance of Islam.”
This last was the subject of Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, Giles Milton’s extraordinary tale of the fierce battle between the Dutch and the English for control of the island of Run. Clifford A. Wright is the author of A Mediterranean Feast, a sweeping, scholarly history (with 500 recipes) of the birth of the cuisines surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. In a later book, Some Like It Hot, Wright lets his hair down and celebrates the chile in all its culinary guises.