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University of Missouri Extension
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016
David H. Trinklein, 573-882-9631
COLUMBIA, Mo. – It’s not just the sights and sounds of Christmas that can put us in the holiday spirit. For many, the aroma and flavor of certain spices are an essential part of the season.
“The holiday season simply would not be the same without certain traditional foods and beverages associated with it,” said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein. “Many of these foods are special because of the use of certain spices or flavorings.”
Spices have had a profound influence on civilization, Trinklein said. Traders made vast fortunes meeting European demand for spices from the East Indies. The search for easier routes to the spice-laden Indies led to the discovery of the Americas.
According to Trinklein, perhaps the oldest and most sought-after spice throughout history is cinnamon—a key ingredient in many holiday treats. Its use goes back at least 7,000 years. The ancient Egyptians used cinnamon to embalm their dead and in sacred ceremonies. It remains a common component of incense used in many churches around the world.
True cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a small, bushy tree native to Sri Lanka and India. The outer bark is scraped off and the inner bark is removed in long sections, which tend to curl into small sticks as they dry. Bark that does not curl properly is ground and marketed as ground cinnamon.
Nutmeg, associated with eggnog and other holiday fare, comes from the seed of a tropical evergreen tree native to Indonesia’s Molucca Islands, also known as the Spice Islands.
The Portuguese, and later the Dutch, invaded these islands. The Dutch East India Company took extreme measures to prevent the export of living plants or viable seeds of nutmeg from these islands to maintain a monopoly on this precious spice. That monopoly ended in the 1800s after the British invaded the islands and transported nutmeg trees to British colonies in tropical areas.
The nutmeg tree produces another important spice. While nutmeg comes from the tree’s egg-shaped seed, the dried, lacy covering of the seed, called the arillus, is the source of mace. Most consider nutmeg the sweeter of the two spices, but mace is widely regarded as having a more delicate flavor.
Nutmeg is credited with having mystical powers. It was used as an amulet to protect against a wide variety of evils and dangers in ancient times. Connecticut is known as the Nutmeg State, reportedly because of the practice of shrewd Yankee traders carving imitation nutmegs out of ordinary wood and selling them to unsuspecting customers.
A third popular holiday spice is clove, the dried flower bud of a species of another tree native to the Moluccas. The name “clove” comes the Latin “clavus,” which means “nail” and is descriptive of its shape. Flowers of the clove tree bear a long calyx that ends with four spreading sepals and four rudimentary petals, which form a ball in the center of the sepals. The buds are bright red but develop a reddish-brown color when dried.
Cloves and nutmeg were among 16th- and 17th-century Europe’s most precious commodities. Magellan’s ill-fated trip around the world began in 1519 with five ships and 250 men, and ended in 1522 with one ship and 18 men. It was still considered a financial success because of the 50 tons of cloves and nutmeg brought back by the surviving ship.
“So, when eggnog and mulled cider are enjoyed this holiday season, consider the spices that make it so flavorful and the role those spices played in the discovery in the land which we call home,” said Trinklein.
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