My Spices Archive

Imagine a world without herbs and spices. Steak without pepper, pizza without oregano, carrot soup without coriander, goulash without paprika, bouillabaisse without saffron. It's too awful to contemplate. For millenia, these flavoursome plants have been so important that nations were conquered for their possession, wars fought for their control and explorers risked sailing their ships off the edge of the world for their discovery. This section of my blog is a source of information about the many wonderful herbs and spices that elevate the taste our food to a higher level.

My spice tables

My spice tables list the 150-odd spices and culinary herbs in my archive and give basic information on their sensory qualities, usage, etc. Checking in one of these tables is a good place to start, with each table providing links to my individual spice profiles.

If you already know which spice you want to find details for, go directly to my Spice Index where you will find pictures of each individual spice and links to their corresponding spice pages.

Spice Overview is a table that lists each spice and culinary herb and provides a general summary, together with specific information on (a) botanical family, (b) main gustatory and olfactory characteristics, (c) degree of pungency, (d) main culinary uses.

Botanical Families Of Spice groups them into their botanical families, under their Latin and common family names.

Spices By Dominant Flavour groups the herbs and spices into those that are predominantly sweet, salty, bitter, sour or combinations of these.

Definitions

Many sources use the term "spice" to refer to dried vegetative flavour additives and "herb" to refer to fresh ones. I find this confusing, because there are many non-herbal spices that are used fresh and several herbs that are used in dried form. And not all herbs have a culinary use. So what I call "spices" includes all vegetative substances that stimulate the gustatory and olfactory senses rather than provide a source of nutrition. Culinary herbs are simply a sub-group of spices, although I use the phrase "herbs and spices" to conform to common practice. Here are my definitions:

A spice is a plant substance (leaf, stem, seed, fruit, root, bark or other organic material) whose culinary purpose is to stimulate the senses of taste and smell of a food consumer, rather than to add nutritional value to the food. Spices may add nutritional value, but this is not their culinary purpose. Spices may also stimulate the visual sense as a colorant (e.g. peppercorn mix) or dye (e.g. saffron), the tactile sense as a thickener (e.g. poppy seeds) or anaesthetic (e.g. paracress) and other senses including the auditory sense, sense of balance, etc. but these are ancillary benefits (or disbenefits).

Many spices also have non-culinary uses including food preservation (e.g. turmeric), medicine (e.g. liquorice), cosmetics (e.g. annatto), religious ritual (e.g. garlic), perfumery (e.g. rose) and as a recreational drug (e.g. nutmeg), but these qualities are not what defines them as spices.
Treasures of Istanbul's Spice Market

A botanical herb garden in New YorkA herb is a plant characterised by a non-woody stem which dies completely, or down to ground level, at the end of the growing season. A culinary herb is a herb that is employed in culinary applications for the purpose of stimulating the gustatory and/or olfactory senses. This distinguishes culinary herbs from herbs that stimulate other senses, are used for their nutritional value (vegetables, salad greens, etc.) or have medicinal, ornamental, psychotropic or other non-culinary use.

As with non-herbal spices, culinary herbs may add nutritional value when used in cooking, but their status as a spice results from sensory stimulus and not from nutritional value. Not all spices are herbs, as many are derived from trees, bushes and other woody-stemmed plants, whereas herbs are by definition all non-woody.

Some herbs - in particular the alliaceous herbs (garlic, onion, shallot and chives) - are generally used simultaneously as both a foodstuff and a spice. Some herbs are occasionally found in spice tables but are excluded from mine because they don't satisfy the definition I have employed above. These are listed in this table in order to distinguish those I have ruled out from those I have yet have encountered.

Spice use through the ages

The British have traditionally held the view that spices and culinary herbs are (a) something "foreign" and (b) used to cover up the taste and smell of unfresh food. The former is for the most part true, of course. As a colonist of many distant parts of the world, Britain exported many spices back to the mother country, just as the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese did. The illustration is of Dom Vasco da Gama (1469–1524), Portuguese explorer and the first recorded person to sail directly from Europe to India.

During the 17th century, British cooking - at least in the households of the wealthy - used a plethora of spices. Somehow this practice died out during the 19th century. We became inward-looking and xenophobic and made the term "foreign" synonymous with "nasty". Only in the past few decades, with mass travel and a booming restaurant trade in the new multi-ethnic Britain, has our love for herbs and spices returned.

As for the "cover up" story - this is twaddle and probably reflects nothing more than the racist views of British soldiers serving in the Crimea and, later, the Indian Raj. Spices have been so rare and expensive that many wars were fought over them. Using them to cover up poor quality meat would be foolish and profligate.

The substance that has been used for meat and fish preservation for millenia and still works perfectly well today is the one missing item from my list of spices - salt - which is not a spice because it is mineral and not vegetable.
Vasco de Gama, leading Portuguese explorer of the European Age of Discovery

For an excellent summary of the history of the spice trade, see Steenbergs Organic's A Short History of Spices.

A little "thank you" to Charlemagne

At the begin of the 9th century, King Charlemagne issued an edict with the grand title: "Capitulare de Villis vel Curtis Imperii Caroli Magni" in which he defined a large number of administrative, legal and agricultural rules for the Frankish empire. At the end of the document was a large list of culinary and medical herbs that were, from that time on, to be grown in every Imperial garden.

Charlemagne - King of the Franks and ruler of Western Europe from 768 to 814The documents were written in Medieval Latin, which was the only language spoken and understood all over the Frankish empire. The Capitulare de Villis helped greatly in the unification of agricultural technologies across the empire and for the spread of "standard" plants and the associated knowledge of their cultivation and use. The plant list of Charlemagne was maintained throughout the Middle Ages right up to the 18th century and the "plants of Charlemagne" were grown in all monasteries where there was a suitable climate.

Many culinary herbs from the Mediterranean became known in the more Northern parts of Central and West Europe. Some of them established themselves permanently in the cooler regions, where their growth required more care and effort. Examples include lovage, parsley, celery and southernwood. Other plants, however, were abandoned for climatic reasons (e.g. almond) or were replaced by alternatives (e.g. cumin).

There is little doubt that we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Charlemagne for the herbs we have today, in particular across Europe. Without the Capitulare de Villis it is likely that many herbs that we take for granted today would have died out altogether.

The plants listed in the Capitulare de Villis are listed in this table, with their current botanical genus name or names and the primary use of each plant today. Most of the plants have been identified unequivocally, but some are in debate.

Many thanks to Tim O'Brien for the spice photo and to Wally Gobetz for the herb garden photo.