Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: Spice Route

Want to know why bay leaves were once more expensive than saffron? Read "The Spice Route", by John Keay.

The book is a history of the Spice Route, and the general quest of Europeans to find exotic aromas and flavors. It goes through time, showing how the trade route was a long chain of sea and overland routes through the Middle Ages. Various spices were harvested in South East Asia: India, Indonesia, and other countries. These were traded by Arabian traders, who brought them to the Middle East. Here, they were traded to others who took them to the Mediterranean.

The history of this route is fascinating: spices were a big motivation for the European powers to expand East and West. Many campaigns were waged: trying all the routes, trying all ways to gain more access. The merchants from Holland successfully bypassed the Mediterranean, and the Spanish and Portuguese managed to go in different directions: the Spanish went towards the New World, while the Portuguese went East towards Goa and Japan. It is difficult to transport a person to that time, where travel was wretched and dangerous, but John does a fine job in giving the reader a flavor of that world.

The spice route led to a colonization of the world, as the European powers carved up the commercial world among themselves. It is instructive to read this history, and learn about how a new improvement fundamentally changes the field.

This book will shed a light into the colonial era, and will take the reader back through time. It made me look at my spice cabinet very differently, and treat my bay leaves with a lot more respect.