A Brief History

The history of herbs and spices is as old as humanity itself.

The earliest evidence of using herbs and spices comes from excavations in pre-historic, archaeological sites, where garlic and mustard are the ingredients that have been discovered. The earliest records of civilisations farming and cooking with herbs and spices are from ancient artefacts of the Assyrians and Egyptians dating back over 5000 years!

Early civilisations were typically quite localised. The Egyptians were based around the Nile, the Assyrians and Persians were between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers but it was conquest and empire building that brought contact with other cultures. The sharing of cuisine and great ingredients was an important factor in the establishment of trade routes within these early civilisations. However it was the conquering actions of Alexander the Great that brought western Europe and Asia together under Roman rule and society benefited from one of the longest periods of prosperity. The culture of fine dining and lavish banquets demanded the best ingredients sourced from all corners of the world.

Overseas trade opens borders

After the demise of the Roman Empire, western cuisine was denied access to many ingredients and it is no surprise that the name given to post-Roman times in Europe is the Dark Ages. In the east, the rise of Islam held the territories from Asia minor and Mediterranean north Africa through to India together and maintained their culinary diversity and interest. It was at the borders between east and west, where the cross over of food began with the early European explorers setting out from Spain, Portugal and Italy to trade. Exploration was a means of re-discovering the food ingredients that had been enjoyed in the past. Trade routes were the source of great wealth for those nations controlling them. Portuguese explorers opened shipping lanes to Indian, China and Malaysia. Dutch traders set up the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or Dutch East Indies Company in 1602 to take advantage of these trade routes. The wealth generated from the trade of spices was most attractive to the British monarchs needing funds to revitalise a country emerging from civil war. The Anglo-Dutch Wars of late 1600s saw the British taking dominance in world trade.

Hannah Glasse: The first Delia Smith

From these times we can find one of the first domestic goddesses who set the scene for Mary, Delia and Nigella, Hannah Glasse wrote a cookery book containing one of the first recipes for Indian Curry to appear in the UK in 1747. The opening of the New World of the Americas led to control of trade passing to the USA and even today, much of world trade is still conducted in dollars.

In short, the history of humanity is inextricably linked to the history of food. The historical journey shows that it is not unreasonable to make the connection between political power and culinary excellence.