There’s that jar of cloves that sits on the back shelf of the pantry until winter comes, and baking cookies and cakes and mulling cider begins. Then, suddenly, there’s cloves; the star of the winter season bringing heat and warmth to our food, and our senses. Cloves, along with her sisters, cinnamon and nutmeg and next to ginger and pepper, were valued spices in ancient and medieval times for this reason.
These are also the spices that sparked a long and bloody war between European countries desperate to break the Arabic hold on the trade routes for spices. I’ve discussed the legends that sprang up around harvesting cinnamon, and while cloves don’t have such mysterious guardians as flying snakes, they do have a rich history.
History of Clove
The name clove is a derivative of the Latin claus, and the French clau. It means nail. If you look at a clove it does look like a nail made a long, long time ago. Cloves are picked right before the bud of the flower opens. This results in its unique form.
Clove was used extensively in ancient and medieval times. It was used for everything from indigestion to sore throats, infections and fevers. As both a medicinal and culinary plant, clove was a valuable commodity on the trade routes.
Clove is indigenous to the Molucca Islands (also known as Maluka), the famed Spice Islands, known then as the West Indies, known today as Indonesia. It grew alongside nutmeg. The indigenous population of Molucca planted a clove tree for every child that was born. They believed that the child’s life was tied to the tree. As long as the tree stayed alive and healthy, so did the child.
The first mention of the use of cloves is 2nd century BCE, from the Han Dynasty in China. Visitors to the Imperial Court were told to hold three clove stems in their mouths, to sweeten the breath when appearing before the Emperor.
European expansion truly began when in the mid-15th century, an Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed the II, cut off routes to the Spice Road after taking over the Byzantine city of Constantinople. Desperate to find an alternate sea route both the Spanish and the Portuguese launched expeditions to find the famed West Indies, where cloves were abundant and nutmeg fell willingly to the ground for the farmers. The Portuguese beat the Spanish and the Dutch (who had joined the race) to the Molucca Islands, and claimed the sea routes for themselves. During long, bloody battles between the European powers for control of the spice trade, the Dutch ended up taking control of the islands in the mid-17th century.
Why was clove so very important? As with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg/mace, and pepper, cloves have significant culinary and medicinal uses.
In the culinary world cloves are used as a base spice which gives food an undercurrent of flavor that helps with the overall taste of a dish. Instead of being front and center it can hum in the background, begging your diners to ask the question, “What did I just eat?”
If too much clove is used it can constitute a massive culinary disaster as it overpowers all other flavors. Using just a pinch will heighten the flavor of a dish to please your diners.
Cloves are used in pickling spices and in cooking with apples, oranges, and peaches. Mulled apple cider contains clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. There is a reason that Easter ham is studded with cloves; it helps preserve the meat. Cloves are a stunning background flavor for barbeque sauces. Add a few cloves to vegetable stock to spruce it up. Or add a small amount of ground clove to rice the next time you cook a batch.
While clove is primarily used in baking in the United States, it is slowly creeping out of pumpkin pies and making its way back into savory cooking. When I presented my Watermelon Gazpacho to one of my chefs, he exclaimed, “I don’t like clove in many dishes, but in here it works.” That was a proud moment for me, being able to use a spice to the surprise of a seasoned chef.
Cloves and Medicine
Clove is considered a warm spice. It is used to heat up a body’s system. It was used heavily in the winter time in mulled wine and apple cider to warm up the blood and combat flu and colds.
Medicinally, clove is known to be anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. It is used as an anesthetic, especially in dentistry. Clove can be used to stop toothaches, and is beneficial in halting the spread of tooth infection. It has also been used as an anti-inflammatory. The active ingredient Eugenol helps combat joint pain due to inflammation.
During the plague years (14th to 19th century) cloves were used alongside other aromatics by doctors treating victims of the disease. Placed in the beak part of the mask that the plague doctors wore, the aromatics warded off the putrid smell of the victims. Cloves were purportedly used in the treatment of the disease as well, though research reveals little information except for this legendary tale of The Four Thieves Anti Plague Remedy, named for the people who invented it. One of the main ingredients? Cloves.
Other Uses of Clove
In Victorian times satchels made of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg mixed with orange or apple scent decorated closets and drawers and drawing rooms. This helped combat “unpleasant” odors that might be offensive to the “sensitive.” This brings into focus the saying “sugar and spice and everything nice” when speaking of girls. These satchels were evolutions of the medieval pomander. The pomander functioned essentially the same way as the plague doctor’s mask. Spices were blended and placed in the container. When passing by unsavory and unpleasant smells, the wearer would pass the pomander by their nose.
Essential oil of clove can be found in soaps and massage oils, and is used in the making of incense and candles.
As our palates expand and become more educated, and we understand more of how spices and herbs work not just in food, but in our bodies, incorporating these once highly priced and prized spices into daily consumption can only benefit mind, body, and spirit.
A spice like clove with such a long and glorious history deserves more attention than it’s been given in modern times, so try a fresh, homemade chai concoction (careful with the use of fresh ginger, it can be overpowering too!), or a sprinkle of cloves on your tofu, or in a spaghetti sauce – especially during the winter months when our bodies need a little warming up.
One of the things I miss about working at the big resort during this time of year is coming into work and smelling the steam kettles full of mulling cider for patrons of the hotel. I’ve been making my own chai tea at home which uses similar spices, so the house is smelling a little like the job I used to have. It is a pleasant smell and also reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen during the holidays.
Here is a simple Spiced Apple Cider recipe. Serve this wonderful, warm drink during Holiday gatherings, or even as a surprise beverage at a birthday party.
- 8 cups apple cider
- 4 cinnamon sticks broken up
- 1 tbsp dried orange peel
- 4-5 allspice berries
- 4-5 cloves
- You can also add cardamom or star anise.
- Pour the apple cider into a sauce pan. Make a satchel out of cheesecloth or muslin and place the spices in the cloth. Use twine to close the satchel. You can also use pre-made muslin bags that are made for this purpose.
- Place the spice satchel in the apple cider. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for 10-15 minutes until the spices infuse into the cider.
- Add rum while heating if you want to spike the cider.