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Spice: The Variety of Life

An Aromatic Route

Jan 14

Two of the three wise men were right: spice is always a welcome gift. (Gold, of course, needs no invitation.)

The treasures brought to celebrate the birth of the newborn babe—frankincense and myrrh—are among the oldest known spices, dating back thousands of years.

Though actually resins, frankincense (also known as olibanum) and myrrh are beneficial plant-derived additives used in medical, culinary and ceremonial regimens. Also, they’re spices.

You use them every day, in cooking and in fragrance. But what are these things we call spices?

Spice is defined as “a dried seed, fruit, root, bark, or vegetable substance primarily used for flavoring, coloring or preserving food.”

Though the words are often used interchangeably, spices narrowly differ from herbs: herbs tend to be the leaves, dried or fresh, of plants, while spices are obtained from the roots, flowers, fruits, seeds or bark. Their flavors often are more potent than herbs; as a result they are typically used in moderation.

Pink Peppercorn and Coriander

Thus, the leaves of Coriandrum sativum give us cilantro (herb) while coriander (spice) is the plant’s seed. Both are used in numerous culinary traditions—Indian, Vietnamese, Swedish and Mexican, to name a few—whether dried and ground or employed as a bright green garnish.

The spice trade, like Helen, launched a thousand ships, spawning centuries of intrepid quests by sea and over land in search of these rare, covetable ingredients.

In popular imagination, the Spice Route is as evocative as the Silk Road, suggesting bustling ports, teeming markets and tantalizing profits. Dutch, English and Portuguese armadas plied the high seas to secure their aromatic cargo. Like strings of pearls, many seaside capitals of spice, from Venice to Java, became extravagantly rich.

Spice as common to us as pepper, harvested along the southern tip of India, was one of the most profitable trade items shipped to Europe.

What today we buy in bulk at the grocery store for mere dollars was once so precious, it was kept in lordly manors under lock and key. These days, thanks to the ease of global trade, spice sits in our kitchen cabinets, a staple we seldom properly esteem.

Sliced Ginger and Cardamom

At Thymes, we thoughtfully blend fine aromatic fragrances from spices in many of our compositions. The aromas of certain spices signal warmth and comfort for many people, triggering intimate associations and memories.

Such warmth can be especially welcome in winter, when we crave sensory stimulation.

Ready to welcome spice notes of warmth in your surroundings? Reach for these Thymes collections:

To learn more about the health benefits of traditional spices and herbs, check out the National Institutes of Health database.

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