A BRIEF HISTORY OF HERBS AND SPICES
By Tim Lambert
Basil is native to India but it was known to the Greeks and the Romans. From the 16th century basil was used to make pasto sauce in Italy.
Bay leaves are native to the Mediterranean area. Bay was well known to the Greeks and the Romans, who held it in high regard. Bay was also a popular herb in the Middle Ages and for centuries bay was a medicine as well as a food.
Cardamom is native to India but it was exported and it was known to the Greeks and the Romans. Cardamom was used as a medicine as well as a food. It became common in Europe in the 17th century when it was brought by sea from India.
Chillies are native to South and Central America and they were cultivated for thousands of years before Columbus. However in the 16th century they were introduced into South Asia and Southern Europe by the Spanish and Portuguese. Chilli powder became very popular in Britain in the 19th century.
Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka. It was known in Ancient China. It was also known to the Ancient Egyptians and the Romans. Like many spices cinnamon was used as a medicine as well as a food. It was used to treat many complaints including colds and flu. However like all spices cinnamon was very expensive, especially in the Middle Ages. In the 16th century the Portuguese reached Sri Lanka by sea and were able to import cinnamon that way. It remained a luxury but was not as costly as it once was.
Cloves are native to Indonesia but they were known to the Romans and to the Ancient Chinese. They were popular in Europe in the Middle Ages and when the Portuguese reached Southeast Asia by sea the price came down. Cloves were also used as a medicine. (In Europe they were used to treat toothache). Cloves are now grown in East Africa and in Brazil.
Coriander was grown by the Greeks and the Romans. It was also popular in Medieval Europe. For centuries coriander was used as a medicine and it was believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Cumin is native to the Mediterranean region and it was well known in Ancient Egypt as well as in Greece and Rome. Cumin was also a common spice in the Middle Ages in Europe. As well as being used in food cumin was also a medicine.
Dill is native to Western Asia. It was used a medicine by the Ancient Egyptians. It was also known to the Romans and to Medieval Europeans.
Garlic is native to Central Asia. It was known in Ancient Egypt and also in India and China. Garlic was also grown by the Greeks and the Romans. For centuries garlic was used as a medicine (among its other uses garlic is a strong antiseptic). Garlic was also believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Ginger is native to Southeast Asia. It was known in ancient China and India and from the Middle Ages was used in Europe. However for centuries ginger was used as a medicine far more than for flavouring food. In Europe ginger was not widely used as a food until the 16th century.
Horseradish was grown by the Ancient Egyptians. Later it was grown by the Greeks and the Romans. However horseradish was only eaten in England in the 17th century. During its long history horseradish was used as a medicine as well as a food.
Mint was well known to the Ancient Greeks and to the Romans. It was also a popular herb in Europe in the Middle Ages. Like many herbs mint was used as a medicine as well as a food.
Mustard was well known in the Ancient Middle East and it is mentioned in the Bible. The Romans also grew mustard and they introduced it into the parts of Europe they conquered. In the Middle Ages mustard was a popular condiment in Europe. At first English mustard consisted of coarse powder and it was not very strong. However in 1720 a Mrs Clements of Durham began making a much smoother mustard powder. When mixed with water to make paste it was very hot but it proved to be popular and Durham became a centre of the mustard industry. (For centuries mustard was used as a medicine as well as a food).
Nutmeg comes from Indonesia. It was very popular in Europe in the Middle Ages and at that time it was obtained from the Arabs. However in the 16th century Europeans began to sail to Southeast Asia and import nutmeg by sea. Like other spices nutmeg was believed to have many medicinal uses.
Parsley is native to the Mediterranean area. It was grown by the Greeks and the Romans and in Medieval Europe. However like most herbs parsley was used as a medicine as well as a food.
Pepper is native to India. It was known to the Romans and was popular in Europe in the Middle Ages, although it was very expensive. In the 16th century the Portuguese began to import pepper from India by sea, which brought its price down. For centuries pepper was used as a medicine for digestive complaints as well as a spice.
Rosemary is a native of the Mediterranean region and it was well known to the Greeks and the Romans. Rosemary was a medicinal herb and it had many uses. Among them it was supposed to improve memory. In the Middle Ages rosemary was burned in hospitals and in rooms with sick people lying in to purify the air.
Sage is a native of the Mediterranean area. It was known to the Greeks and the Romans. However like many herbs sage was, for centuries far more commonly used as a medicine rather than for food.
Today we don't regard sugar as a spice but in the Middle Ages and Tudor times it was seen as one. Sugar cane first grew in Southern Asia. (Sugar was used in Ayurvedic medicine in India). The Arabs grew sugar cane and at the end of the 11th century the Crusaders brought sugar to Europe. (Although in the Middle Ages sugar was a rare luxury and honey was far more commonly used to sweeten food). At the end of the 15th century sugar cane was taken to the New World. Sugar was first made from sugar beet in the 18th century. A German chemist called Andreas Marggraf was the first person to make sugar from beet in 1747.
Tarragon is native to Central Asia. It reached Europe in the later Middle Ages and was first grown in England in the 16th century. Its name is derived from Latin words meaning 'little dragon'.
Thyme is native to the Mediterranean area. It was known to the Ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans (who introduced it into Britain). Like other herbs thyme was used as a medicine as well as a food.
A history of Food
A history of Condiments
A history of Drink
A history of Desserts
A history of Biscuits
A history of Sweets
Last revised 2012