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The Mighty Apple II Personal Computer

The Mighty Apple II Personal Computer

Sometime in the early 1980’s my family got its first computer–the amazing Apple II.  Although making bespoke cards for grandma on the daisywheel printer and struggling unsuccessfully with the grammar of DOS was exciting, nothing about the high-tech wonder was as thrilling as the promise of epic medieval adventure!  Somehow, I obtained a pirate copy of Ultima II and soon I was off to save the minimally rendered realm!

The Graphic Violence of Ultima II!

The Graphic Violence of Ultima II!

Unfortunately, as a computer pirate, I lacked a map or any instructions, and my piteous little pixelated knight died naked and unarmed many a time before I finally figured out how to enter a town and haggle with a virtual arms dealer.  Then, with my meager stock of gold, I was able to purchase a bargain level mace…but I had no idea what that was.

“What’s mace?” I asked my mother.

“It is a spice used for fancy cookies” she responded.  However, after giving away my precious 3 GP for such a thing, I was entirely unsatisfied with the answer.

Time to fight some dragons...

Time to fight some dragons…

“No, it’s supposed to be a weapon. I want to know about mace the weapon!” I desperately begged.

“Hmm, I guess it’s also a sort of spray that women use to fend off muggers.”

The graphics of Ultima II relied heavily on the power of imagination: combat was rendered as a momentary glowing halo, but the finer details of carnage (and weaponry) were not pictured.  As I imagined my fearless warrior spraying pepper spray in the eyes of marauding orcs, the joy of the game was greatly diminished.   I nearly gave up on role-playing games altogether before I remembered the huge and fraying Webster’s unabridged dictionary (the ultimate vessel of human knowledge in those dim pre-internet days when we lived far from any library or bookstore).

A young me fighting the goblin hordes (simulation)

A young me fighting the goblin hordes (simulation)

Webster’s saved my faith in computerized role-playing games:  it turns out a mace is a war club, typically with spikes or flanges (as well as also being a “rod of office”…and a spice…and a spray).  In fact the primitive brutality of the concept has appealed to humankind for a long, long time.  Some of the most ancient weapons from the palace-cities of Mesopotamia are maces, and, as our mastery of materials improved, so too did our spiked clubs.

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 2

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 2

Although it has been a long time since I saved the world from the wicked sorceress Minax (or even played any computer game at all), my love of all things gothic remains unabated.  Here therefore is a gallery of fancy gothic maces which should satisfy any eldritch death knight or priggish paladin.

A Very Fine 15th Century (Late Gothic) Mace in the Museum of Lucerne, Switzerland

A Very Fine 15th Century (Late Gothic) Mace in the Museum of Lucerne, Switzerland (with three Landsknecht pike heads)

The two maces are part of the original stock of the Imperial Vienna Armory

The two maces are part of the original stock of the Imperial Vienna Armory

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 1

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 1

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Heavy Flanged Mace

Heavy Flanged Mace

Very Fine Gothic Mace c. 1510, German or North Italian

Very Fine Gothic Mace c. 1510, German or North Italian

German "Gothic" Mace, circa 1480

German “Gothic” Mace, circa 1480

A&A High Gothic Mace.

A&A High Gothic Mace

Replica Mace from Wulflund.com

Replica Mace from Wulflund.com

Ceremonial Mace

Ceremonial Mace

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I must say they look quite formidable!  My ten year old self would have been delighted to know how scary and pretty the mace could be.  But the years have mellowed me greatly.  Now I might be tempted to try baking some of those fancy spice cookies and offering them to the orcs first….

Lemon Mace Sugar Cookies

What sort of monster could refuse lemon mace sugar cookies?

Nutmeg

Nutmeg

Yesterday I cooked a savory chicken pie using an ancient recipe and it came out really well.  Although it has carrots, cream, mushroom, potato, boiled chicken, caramelized onion, and peas, the dominant taste is a subtle flavor which is simultaneously sweet, medicinal, and delicately evocative of some eastern paradise.  The secret ingredient is one of the strangest and most important commodities in human history—nutmeg, the ground nut from the fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans.

A nutmeg fruit

A nutmeg fruit

In the middle ages, nutmeg was a rare and precious ingredient.  Only a small cadre of Muslim traders knew where the spice was actually from and, after laboriously carrying it across or around the Indian Ocean, they sold it to the Venetians for substantial sums (whereupon the Venetians sold it to everyone else for exorbitant sums).  The European age of exploration was ostensibly launched in order to find the mysterious “Spice Islands” where nutmeg was from (a pursuit which had long ranging side effects, such as the European rediscovery of the Americas and the rush towards global colonial empires).

The Banda Islands

The Banda Islands

Even though the search for nutmeg kicked off an age of exploration, it was not until 1512 that the Spanish finally discovered where all the world’s nutmeg was coming from: the Banda Islands located East of Sulawesi in the middle of the Banda Sea. The Islands were thereafter contested by traders until the Dutch gained an upper hand in the 17th century.  The Dutch used this monopoly to bolster  their brief ascendancy to global superpower.  During the height of Dutch power, nutmeg was taken to Holland and stored in a giant warehouse in order to keep the price artificially high.

17th Century Amsterdam

17th Century Amsterdam

As the English began to command mastery of the seas, they inevitably fought the Dutch for control of world trade.  The Second Dutch-English war, a battle for global maritime supremacy, was fought in the Caribbean, the North Sea, at the mouth of the Thames (and, on all the oceans of the world, via privateering).  The war was fought over the global trade in slaves, fur, tobacco, and, above all, spices.  Although English privateers scored initial successes, the war became a disaster for the English when the Dutch raided their home port of Medway at the mouth of the Thames and burned their war fleet (an event which is still regarded as the worst disaster in the history of the English navy).

The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (Jan van Leyden, ca. 1667, oil on canvas)

The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (Jan van Leyden, ca. 1667, oil on canvas)

In the treaty of Breda, which ended the war, the English received the colony of New Amsterdam—thereafter named New York, whereas the Dutch claimed the greatest prize: exclusive control of the Banda Islands (and the sugar plantations of Suriname).  Thereafter the Dutch crushed hints of sedition on the Banda Islands by means of brutal executions and they led war raids on nearby territories to extirpate any nutmeg trees which had been grown or transplanted elsewhere in Indonesia.

Tourists frolic beneath a nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) in Grenada

Tourists frolic beneath a nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) in Grenada

During the Napoleonic Wars, the English used their naval supremacy to take over the Banda Islands and break the Dutch monopoly.  They exported trees to numerous tropical colonies (which is why Kerala and Granada are now famous for nutmeg production).  Colonial America was hardly exempt from the nutmeg craze, but because of colonial antagonisms, nutmeg was not always available at affordable prices.  The state of Connecticut became famous for unscrupulous tradesmen who would carve nutmeg seeds out of similarly colored wood and thereby earned its nickname “The Nutmeg State” (i.e. a haven for fraud) which seems appropriate given the number of wealthy financiers who live there.

Gentlemen drinking and smoking pipes round a table in an interior, a servant bearing a bowl of punch (English School)

Gentlemen drinking and smoking pipes round a table in an interior, a servant bearing a bowl of punch (English School)

So much for the history of nutmeg production and distribution—what about the demand? What was the reason for all of this desperate search and strife? Nutmeg was popular as a spice and tonic since ancient times when it was used by Greeks and Romans (if they could get it). During the era after the crusades it became de rigueur among aristocrats and its status only grew during the age of exploration. Wealthy gentlemen would carry nutmeg grinders on them, and hand grind nutmeg into alcoholic punches and hot drinks.  Nutmeg was baked into the fanciest pastries, pies, and cakes.  The red avril covering the nutmeg seed was ground into a separate spice named mace which is used in more delicate dishes.  As well as being used in desserts and drinks, nutmeg was used in Indian curries, eastern medicine, and at the apothecary. The fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans held a druglike sway over the wealthy classes around the globe.

Botanical-Educational-plate-Nutmeg-780x579

It turns out that nutmeg contains myristicin, a powerful psychoactive substance which acts as a Monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).  MAOIs prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters, a mysterious class of neurotransmitters which play an unknown but critical role in emotion, arousal, and cognition (indeed pharmaceutical MAOIs are one of the more useful classes of antidepressants).  In tiny doses myristicin is harmless or tonic to humans (although even in small doses it is deadly to many animals including some of our best beloved domestic friends) yet upping the dosage quickly causes nausea, seizures, splitting headaches and powerful weird hallucinations.  Every generation, the press rediscovers nutmeg as a drug and creates a moral panic, although all but the most reckless drug users are put off by nutmeg’s bitter taste in large doses—or by the ghastly descriptions of nutmeg’s physical effects.

nut Egg Nog 006

Indeed, the modern world has found more potent flavors (and better psychoactive powders).  Nutmeg has been relegated to grandma’s spice rack and it really only comes out during the holidays as a critical flavor in eggnog, pumpkin pie, mulled wine, and gingerbread.  This is a shame because, in small quantities nutmeg is delicious in savory dishes (like my pot pie and my favorite lasagna).  The flavor has a strange power—an intoxicating deliciousness which invades the brain and gives nutmeg dishes an irresistible quality. Believe me, because as I finish writing this, I am also finishing off that addictive pot pie (and I believe I am also starting to feel more chipper)…

My chicken pot pie (with some portions missing)

My chicken pot pie (with some portions missing)

Argh!

The winter is gradually passing away into spring–which should be an exultant season for flower gardeners.  Yet the results in my back yard are extremely discouraging because the ferocious squirrels of Brooklyn have eaten all of my crocuses!  Despite planting an immense number of the hardy little flowers, I am still bereft of spring color.   I guess I should have expected something like this after the infernal bushy-tailed rodents ate all the glass bulbs from the Christmas lights…

The Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus)

As it turns out, squirrels are not the only ones who love crocus flavor.  One of the world’s most precious spices is made from the little flowers.  The gourmet spice saffron literally consists of the harvested stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus).  The saffron crocus plant has been domesticated since antiquity to provide the costly spice and the plant literally owes its existence to human appetite for the powdery threads.  Crocus sativus is a descendant of Crocus cartwrightianus, a wild crocus from the rocky skree of southwest Asia.   As humankind selectively planted the plants with the longest stigmas (and hence the most delicious saffron) the little crocus developed into a completely different—and completely dependent—species.  Crocus sativus now has magnificent spiraling stigma covered in deep yellow pollen, but the artificial selection came at a terrible cost.  The plant is a male sterile triploid, incapable of sexual reproduction thanks to its extra chromosome.  Saffron crocuses can only reproduce asexually and they require human assistance to prosper.  The spice is still prohibitively expensive since the little plants must be planted and harvested by hand.

A majority of the world's saffron currently comes from Iran.

Saffron is known to recorded history as early as the 7th century BC (when it was mentioned in a Assyrian botanical treatise) however archeological and genetic evidence suggest that saffron has been harvested for at least 4 millenia!  Since saffron contains over 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds, I am not going to try to describe it to you—you’ll just have to get some yourself.  My favorite dish which uses the yellow pollen is mussels, saffron, vermouth, and cream!

Of course I am cheating a little bit by writing this article in the spring–the saffron crocus is really an autumn flowering plant.  However I felt like my slaughtered crocuses deserved some sort of memorial tribute.  Of course if I really wanted to commemorate the slain flowers I could turn to my paint box. In addition to being a spice, saffron is also a color—a deep orangey gold reminiscent of foods prepared with the spice.   Strangely, for a color so steeped in the sensory joys of living, saffron has also come to represent worldly renunciation.  Buddhist monks wear robes of deep saffron and the top bar of the Indian flag is the same rich orange-yellow.  The flag’s designers hoped that the color would inspire India’s leaders to set aside material gains and dedicate themselves to the welfare of the people, but, alas, in all societies such selfless dedication is even rarer than the rarest spice.

Buddhist Monks in Laos

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