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Food and Drink

How Did Spices Lead to the Age of Exploration? The Spice Trade in India

Spice: Spices that used to take months (if not years) of travel are now readily available in every grocery shop and on online stores. While seasonings would have ultimately been accessible, spices were first introduced into the worldwide culinary vocabulary during the Age of Exploration.

Spices not only made merchants wealthy all over the world, but they also built and destroyed enormous empires, unveiled entire continents to Europeans, and tilted the global power balance. If there is a distinct beginning to the modern era, it was launched by the spice trade. Until Europeans began looking for a new route to the Far East, Arab traders controlled the spice trade between Europe and the East for almost 5,000 years. The spice trade started, and the Age of Exploration helped establish the groundwork for the contemporary world- all in the name of a more delectable meal.

 

The Beginning of the Spice Trade

The spice trade in the Middle East dates back over 4,000 years. By hiding the origins of their commodities, they would ensure high pricing. Arabic spice merchants would create a feeling of mystery by telling wonderful tales like fighting dangerous winged animals to obtain spices growing high on cliff sides.

Traditionally, the spice trade was largely handled across land routes by camel caravans. The Silk Road was a vital link between Asia and the Mediterranean area, covering North Africa and Europe. The Silk Road also played a vital role in the development of major empires in China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia, and Rome.

 

Venice Emerged as a Primary Trade Port

In the first century BC, the Roman Empire established a prominent commercial centre in Alexandria, Egypt, and for many years, it was in charge of all spices entering the Greco-Roman world. Another example of the historical importance of now-common spices is the payment of Roman troops in salt. It was this practice that gave rise to the words “salary” and “worth his salt.”

Throughout history, numerous organisations fought for control of the spice trade. Venice eventually became the principal commercial port for spices heading for western and northern Europe in the mid-13th century. Venice grew enormously affluent by imposing expensive customs, and without direct access to Middle Eastern supplies, the European people had little choice but to pay the exorbitant costs. Even the rich struggled to pay for spices, and they ultimately resolved to take action.

 

Age of Exploration

The European Age of Discovery revolutionised the spice trade in the 15th century. By this period, navigational technology had improved to the point where long-distance sailing was practicable. Rich businesspeople began equipping explorers in the hopes of finding new methods to access the spice-growing regions outside of Venice.

Many journeys failed to reach their destinations, but a few of them discovered new places and treasures. When Christopher Columbus set sail to find the direct route to India, he instead discovered America. He bought back fruits and vegetables instead of peppercorns. He also bought chiles, which he dubbed “peppers” to ease his sorrow at not finding peppercorns. The phrase “chile pepper” is still stuck to this time.

 

The Beginning of the Portuguese Empire in India

Portugal began with four ships led by Vasco da Gama rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 and travelling across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, India. The Portuguese Empire officially began with this victory. By 1511, the Portuguese had taken control of the spice trade along India’s Malabar Coast and in Ceylon.

The Portuguese had a monopoly on the spice trade to India until the end of the 16th century, and it was extremely profitable for them. However, the Portuguese monopoly on the pepper trade was short-lived due to competition and pepper cultivators.

 

Indian Spice Consumption during the Renaissance

Spices were used in many different ways by Renaissance people, and the spice trade was an essential part of the Renaissance economy. Pepper for keeping rotten meat fresh and flavouring it. Cloves and cinnamon to keep the area free of foot odour. People carried nutmeg pieces with a little grater in their pockets, ready to season nasty, disagreeable meals. Many a Renaissance neck had a spicy pomander tied around it to prevent asphyxia, disease, and stink.

The majority of European countries receive their spices from India. Pepper was found on the coast of Cochin and the Malabar Peninsula. Cinnamon and cardamom were endemic to Ceylon, while cloves were cultivated along the Bay of Bengal’s shore.

 

The English in India

With the Portuguese’s dominance weakening, the Dutch and the English saw a chance to acquire control of the spice trade in India. As England was a naval power, it posed a significant danger to the Portuguese and the Dutch. Queen Elizabeth, I chartered the British East India Company in 1600, with the primary goal of securing spice shipments. The British took their time in wresting authority from the Dutch. And in 1780, England and Holland fought a war that seriously undermined Dutch influence in India. By the 1800s, the British had taken control of all that had previously belonged to Portugal and Holland.

 

Modern Trade

The value of spices began to decline as they became more widely available. The trade channels were wide open, individuals had discovered how to transplant spice plants to different areas of the world, and rich monopolies began to disintegrate.

Spices have lost their prestige and appeal that once placed them alongside jewels and precious metals as the world’s most expensive goods. Pepper and cinnamon are no longer luxury commodities for most of us now. However, spices still have a fascinating history and a stunning array of unique flavours, colours, and aromas. These qualities of the spices made them so valued in the first place.

Spice farmers now sell their products either through their own businesses or through exporting companies. Food makers, distributors, and retailers now distribute spices. Thanks to developments in technology and science, spices are now able to thrive in other parts of the world with comparable conditions to India.

 

There are several spice manufacturing brands in India nowadays, such as Vasant Masala. These brands supply their products not only across India but also to many foreign countries.

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