What’s the most evocative smell of Christmas? Perhaps roasting meats, but the smell you’d choose to bottle is more likely to be of Christmas puddings, mince pies, gingerbreads and biscuits redolent of dried citrus peel, various incarnations of dried grapes and of spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, ginger and vanilla.
Inspired by memories of the smell of the house with his mother making the family’s Christmas pudding on Derby Day, Yarra Valley’s Four Pillars Gin’s Cam Mackenzie distilled a Christmas gin by including Christmas puddings, juniper, cinnamon, star anise and coriander as the botanicals. This wacky concoction was finished by blending with Rutherglen muscat, gin aged in old muscat barrels and FP Rare Gin. Last month, Australian Financial Review wine writer Tim White observed, “Christmas in a glass … all it needs is a dash of cream or custard”. Apparently quite wonderful and although now sold out from the distillery it may still be available in some retail outlets.
We tend to take the spices for granted today, unless we’re buying real vanilla orchid pods when we might baulk at the steep price. Their abundance in our Christmas desserts recalls their historical status as a special Christmas treat – rather difficult to imagine given today’s status as a commodity. The origins of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace and ginger in South East Asia, or in the case of vanilla, in Central America, meant a tortuous trade route and a severely constrained supply.
As a result, the cost of spices in antiquity and into the Age of Empire was exorbitant – as discussed earlier this year (LINK), spices could be worth more than their weight in gold and, from the 15th to 17th centuries, the spice trade fueled European economies and rivalries. As the diaspora of spices were established by colonial powers in regimented plantations throughout their potential climatic range, supply has increased, and with increased supply their real price has continued to fall. The history of spices is a rich lode.
Cinnamon appears in the Bible, in Ancient Egypt and Classical Greece and Rome. Nero is supposed to have burned a year’s store of cinnamon at the funeral of Poppaea Sabina, the wife he murdered in 65 AD (although there’s a reasonable view that he may rather have burned the unrelated saro wood Cinnamosma fragrans (Canellaceae) – a scented wood from Madagascar). The trade routes through East Africa and Arabia were eventually controlled by Venetian Empire from Alexandria. However, the Ottoman siege and sacking of Constantinople in 1453 shifted the control of these trade routes. In significant measure Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama’s expeditions were driven by the search for new routes to the East Indies for the spice trade.
A cinnamon tree during a period of harvest
The successive invasion and colonisation of Ceylon by the Portuguese, Dutch and British was motivated by the Ceylon’s cinnamon treasure. While Australia’s fragrance is eucalyptus oil, a Dutch sea captain observed that Ceylon’s fragrance of cinnamon was evident eight leagues out to sea. Sri Lankan (Ceylonese) cinnamon is Cinnamomum verum (Lauraceae) – the true cinnamon – distinguished by a fine, balanced and powerful taste and scent, and recognised by the thinner bark easily rolled into the familiar cinnamon quills. So here’s a spice that’s a tree bark.
Cinnamon includes a number of species native to (and beyond) India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. Today, while most of the world’s supply of true cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, two thirds of the world’s cinnamon supply is sourced from other Cinnamomum species. These cinnamons are sometimes referred to as cassia (particularly C. cassia) – most of this is grown in Indonesia although there are significant crops of cinnamon from India, Vietnam, China and Madagascar. Nutmeg and mace are from the nutmeg tree, Myristica fragrans (Myristicaceae) and cloves are from the clove tree, Syzygium aromaticum (Myrtaceae). Both trees are native to the Maluku Islands (the Moluccas or spice islands) of Indonesia. Nutmeg is a seed while mace is the net-like fleshy growth that surrounds the seed – botanically an aril – both are contained within the fleshy fruit. Cloves are flower buds.
A Dutch monopoly on cloves was difficult to enforce as cloves are widespread across the Malukus and the monopoly collapsed after the French established cloves on Mauritius. However, nutmeg trees are native only to the tiny Banda Islands within the Malukus and accordingly the monopoly was more difficult to break. Famously, the Dutch traded their rights to Manhattan island for the tiny island of Run in the Bandas – the only British controlled producer of nutmeg.
Cloves coming into bloom
Ginger is the rhizome or underground stem of the herbaceous plant Zingiber o cinale (Zingiberaceae) – in the same plant family as cardamom and turmeri c. The ginger of commerce is probably native to India although ginger is widespread in South East Asia and has been cultivated and traded since ancient times. Gingerbread was reputedly first baked on the Isle of Rhodes in 240 BC and subsequently introduced to Egypt.
Vanilla is a relatively late arrival as an ingredient beyond Central America. Vanilla was introduced to Europe from Mexico by conquistador Hernando Cortez in the wake of Columbus’s voyage to the New World. Vanilla orchids, Vanilla planifolia (Orchidaceae) produce the vanilla ‘bean’, botanically a capsule, and sold as such or more often as vanilla extract obtained from capsules soaked in alcohol.
Previous Christmas essays have drawn attention to other aspects of the botany of Christmas – it is the most remarkable season for botany in our homes and a traditional Christmas is certainly the richest accumulation of plant families and species in our homes each year. While there might not be a Christmas gin on the table it’s still worth celebrating the Christmas’s abundance of spices with a toast – merry Christmas!