Do you ever stop to wonder where the spices we use everyday, like vanilla and thyme, come from? Before they can arrive in little glass containers lined up on your spice rack, spices and seasonings travel long and storied routes. We uncover the surprising histories and origins of some of our favorite spices.
Vanilla originates from orchids of the genus Vanilla, and emanate from Mesoamerica, in places like modern day Guatemala and Mexico. While vanilla is a very common ingredient used in many household recipes, its cultivation and production is quite complex. The vanilla “bean” comes from the pod part of the orchid, and is picked before it is ripe. It is then submerged in hot water and set out to dry for about two to six months. Vanilla is the second most-expensive spice after saffron, and for good reason. Besides the fact that the plant is extremely time-consuming to produce, the pods must be pollinated by hummingbirds or a particular species of bees native to Central America, and the orchids can only grow 10 to 20 degrees north and south the equator.
Cinnamon has been used by humans since around 2,000 B.C. In its earliest days, cinnamon was used as a perfuming agent by Egyptians and as an anointing oil ingredient in the Old Testament. Arabs traded the spice in Europe, and its limited and expensive supply made it a status symbol in the Middle Ages. Cinnamon quickly became an extremely coveted spice. Arab merchants kept its origins a secret until the 16th century, at which time Portugese traders discovered the spice in Ceylon, present-day Sri-Lanka, and conquered the island of Kotto and enslaved its people in order to take control of the trade. Learn more about the history of cinnamon here.
Saffron is not only the most expensive spice, but also the most visually vibrant. Saffron threads, or the vivid crimson stigmas, are found in the blossoms of the crocus flower, and it takes 72,000 flowers to make just one pound of saffron – no wonder it has such an expensive price tag. Not only is saffron only harvest-able at very specific times, but each red saffron thread must be hand picked. Saffron has been a delicate and highly coveted spice for centuries, and people take the skinny red spice very seriously. In the Middle Ages, altering saffron was punishable by death, specifically being buried or burnt alive. While no such dramatic sanction in the name of saffron exists today, the spice remains extremely rare and highly lusted over.
Beginning in ancient Roman times, thyme was believed to be an antidote for poison and a symbol of courage – Roman soldiers exchanged thyme sprigs and burnt the spice in homes and temples to evoke the spirit of courage. During the Black Death in the 14th century, thyme was used in many medical concoctions for pain relief and protection. Thymbol, an antiseptic found in thyme, is still used today in hand sanitizer, mouthwash, and acne medications. Besides its medicinal use over the ages, thyme has of course been used as a common cooking ingredient, especially in European dishes.