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The “Nail Incense”: Uncovering the Clove — Part II

Part I explored the history of the clove, the aromatic unopened flower bud of a tree native to the Spice Islands. It also recounted the drive by the Portuguese to control the alluring spice.

The trade in cloves and other spices was also changing Europe’s culinary habits. The leisure classes were consumed by what historian Ferdinand Braudel called a “spice orgy.” At the fancy tables of the aristocracy, stews and roasts fragrant with cloves were being served. A 15th century cookbook gave instructions for a rabbit dish scented with cloves, saffron, ginger, cypress root, cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg. The more elaborate and lavish the display of spices, the greater the status and prestige of the host of who offered the luxuries to his guests.

The English, great lovers of pies, were adding spices from the East to savory pastries. A typical Elizabethan recipe for minced pie, food historian C. Anne Wilson notes, makes a spice-laden pastry: “Shred your meat (mutton or beef) and suet together fine. Season it with cloves, mace, pepper, and some saffron, great raisins and prunes.” The French used cloves to give flair to their stews. Alexandre Dumas prescribed “three big onions, two with a clove stuck in each of them, the third with a clove of garlic” for pot-au-feu.

Cloves were essential to medieval drinks. Young or old ale, the English poet Chaucer writes, benefits from cloves and nutmeg. Hippocras (named for the Greek physician), a spiced wine reputed to be a healthful refreshment, contained a large measure of cloves. A 16th century recipe for the drink demands “a gallon of wine, an ounce of synamon, two ounces of ginger, one pound of sugar, twentie cloves bruised, and twentie cormes of pepper big beaten: let all these soake together one night, and then let it run through a bag.”

Cloves were invested with a variety of curative powers. “Cloves give a clean breath, free the wind, and cure upset stomach,” the Dutch physician Bernardus Paladanus asserted. Especially during the Middle Ages when there was widespread fear of airborne pestilence and fetid odors, Europeans turned to spices for protection.

Thirteenth century nobles sported pomanders (“apples of amber”), metal balls containing a mixture of cloves and other spices, around their necks. They breathed in the pleasing aroma through an opening carved in the charm. During the Elizabethan era, when the Queen wore a pomander, some of the nobility showed off similar jeweled and gold powdered ornaments laden with spices.

The pomander evolved into a holiday fixture. Oranges studded with cloves were fashioned during the Christmas season. The fragrant citrus, which served as both gift and decoration, was inseparable from the celebration. “He has an Orange and rosemary, but not a clove to stick in it,” Samuel Johnson wrote in his Christmas masque. Soon in both English and American households, pomanders were imparting a refreshing fragrance to closets and drawers.

The aroma of cloves had become so addictive in the West that Europeans would be seduced by a flower with a similar fragrance. Carnations, or “pinks,” were avidly cultivated in the 17th and 18th centuries for this reason. Clove gillyflowers, or gillyflowers for short, as they were known in England, made less expensive substitutes for the dearer spice. Tavern keepers figured that the scent of carnations would make their wine more attractive to drinkers. “Sops in wine,” as some were called, infused the alcohol with a clove-like aroma. Engaged couples celebrated their commitment by imbibing wine in which carnations were floating.

For the same reasons, colonial gardeners in America planted European wild carnations. Seventeenth century housewives, botanical historian Judith Sumner pointed out, invented a cordial, a healthy drink scented with gillyflowers. The alluring aroma has mostly vanished today since modern carnations are usually bred without the scent.

Back in the East, the battle for the control of spices raged on. A more ruthless nation was now determined to depose the Portuguese. Intent on seizing the cloves and nutmegs for themselves, the Dutch ousted the Iberians in the early 17th century. The Netherlands held sway over the Spice Islands for 200 years. Learned commentators like Rumphius, who had been documenting the natural life of the Moluccas for the Dutch, justified the dominance of the vigorous and enterprising Northern Europeans over their “inferiors”: “The Creator of nature created them not so much for these savage Inhabitants, as for the European and northern climes: for since Cloves have a hot essence, surpassing even Pepper in heat, but not in dryness, it appears that this first fruit cannot be of much service in these hot countries, but all the more so in the cold, northern world.”

“No lover is as jealous of his mistress as the Dutch are of their spices,” an anonymous French man once wrote. The nation, however, did not govern with sentiment. Under Holland’s policies, a single goal, extracting the maximum profit from its spice colonies, took precedence over all other considerations. The imperatives of the market required a rational, efficient system. For the Dutch, that meant maintaining strict control over the Islands’ aromatics. Compared to the Portuguese, the Dutch aimed to fix the price on cloves and brooked no interference with that objective.

“It was a company of brisk and energetic tradesmen, who with profits as their lodestar and greed as their compass, obtained through the chance of events, absolute control over one of the most beautiful and fertile regions of the earth,” the Dutch commentator de Louter concluded.

In comparison, the Portuguese, for all their imperial fervor, were not ruthless businessmen. Aristocratic adventurers, they operated on a more informal basis. The Portuguese gave free rein in their possessions to glory seekers and bounty hunters who often disregarded the national interest.

The Dutch monopolists, in contrast, restricted production of the spice crop to eliminate any glut in the market that would drag down prices. To do this, clove planting was limited to one island, Amboyna. The trees on the others were razed. The “extirpation” plan began in 1625 when 25,000 trees were cut down. The colonials burnt down farming villages and chased down clove pickers. Selling or possessing spices, except on Amboyna, was made punishable by death. The successful strategy meant that the Dutch no longer had to resort to burning excess spices in Amsterdam.

The rulers pursued their goals unmercifully, complexly ignoring their effects on the islanders. There was no other way “to rid us of the overabundance of cloves and the burden of the unreliable Moors (the Muslim inhabitants of the islands), than to destroy their clove trees and level them to the ground,” Dutch official Aers Gysels declared. Since each tree symbolized a new child, the Moluccans believed that each one destroyed spelled doom for the family. The loss also inflicted material pain. The people had traditionally traded cloves for rice. Without rice, they had to make do with a skimpy diet of sago, a starch extracted from the stem of a palm tree.

The endless war over cloves and other spices rested on a myth—that the plants could only grow in the Spice Islands. A French colonial administrator, aptly named Pierre Poivre, punctured this myth and, thus, paved the way for new forms of competition. Poivre, who had studied theology, philosophy, and art as a young man, served as governor of the Indian island colony of Isle de France (present day Mauritius.) Resentful of the Dutch stranglehold over spices, he was eager for his motherland to share in the wealth: “[T]he possession of spices which is the basis of Dutch power in the Indies was grounded on the ignorance and cowardice of the other trading nations of Europe,” he argued. The indefatigable Poivre organized countless expeditions to spirit away clove and nutmeg seedlings from the Moluccas. If he was caught, he risked imprisonment or death.

Poivre did not succeed but his followers were victorious. The spice thieves achieved their leader’s goal of making Île de France a “nursery” for cloves. The first crop was harvested there by the end of the 18th century. Clove plantations soon sprang up on the French islands of Reunion and Seychelles. Not to be outdone, the English transplanted cloves to Malaysia.

A curious course of events created a new arena for clove cultivation off the coast of East Africa. A mere 25 miles from the coast of Tanzania, the island of Zanzibar had long been a commercial outpost and a resting place for a medley of peoples — Africans, Persians, Arabs, and Indians. Many of the islanders called themselves Shirazi, a reference to their Persian heritage. Islam ruled its religious life.

Zanzibar was taken over in the early 17th century by the Arabian kingdom of Oman. Strategically located at the juncture of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, the state sent out sturdy boats carried by the monsoons in search of cloth and sugar from India and ivory and slaves from East Africa. The arrival of cloves, once presumed the exclusive preserve of the Spice Islands, provided the new rulers with a commercial bonanza. Once an island backwater, where people scratched out a living from fishing and subsistence farming, Zanzibar burgeoned into a trading empire built on this cash crop. It rose to become the world’s largest clove producer.

According to legend, Haramelu bin Saleh, a shadowy figure who had been banished from Zanzibar for an act of murder, returned in 1818 carrying clove plants from the Île de France. Sultan Seyyid Said, who had moved his capital from the Arabian Peninsula to Zanzibar, promoted clove cultivation as a wealth producer. Planting the first seeds on the grounds of his palace, he concentrated control of the crop in his family’s hands. The monarch offered land to his children, concubines, and eunuchs, on the condition that they devote a large portion of it to cloves.

From the initial two or three plants, groves of evergreens spread over the island. Forests were chopped down to make way for the spice. The Sultan threatened farmers with eviction if they did not grow three clove trees for every coconut. Clove frenzy seized the island. The new crop replaced basic foods like wheat, maize, and rice, which now had to be imported. Cloves “speedily became a favorite, and in 1815 the aristocratic foreigner almost supplanted the vulgar coconut and homely rice necessary for local consumption,” the British explorer Richard Burton observed. Arab plantations, large estates that often boasted as many as 10,000 trees, overshadowed the commoners’ tiny plots.

In Zanzibar itself, the clove was absorbed into the island’s hybrid cuisine. The spice gave dishes Arabic and Indian accents. Pilau (their variation on pilaf), East African students in Washington tell me, requires cloves. The festive dish, also fragrant with cardamom, cinnamon, and cumin, is served at weddings, parties, and other special occasions. Islanders are very fond of chai masala, tea infused with cloves and cardamom, which is similar to the hot drink enjoyed in India and Arabia.

Under Omani rule, Zanzibar was transformed into a feudal plantation society dependent on an army of slaves to care for the crop. Since locals refused to do plantation labor, workers had to be brought in. Caravans hoisting the Sultan’s flag trekked from the coast into the interior to procure ivory and slaves. The slave traders exchanged Indian muslin, pearls, glass, and porcelain for the tribesmen. Soon the slave population on the island outstripped that of Arabs and Africans — in 1850 they were two-thirds of Zanzibar’s inhabitants.

Lured by the island’s cloves, ivory, hides, and gum copal, ships from the U.S. and Europe headed for Zanzibar. An American ship from Salem, Massachusetts docked at the port in 1830, inaugurating trade between New England and the Indian Ocean island. Salem, the capital of America’s spice trade, exported cloth made in the city’s cotton mills to Zanzibar. Merekani, the Swahili name for this white, unbleached cloth, replaced Indian textiles and beads as the leading import. Zanzibar’s economy was increasingly dependent on trade with the West.

On my visit to the island I was struck by reminders of Zanzibar’s opulent years under Arab rule. I saw the Sultan’s palace, his harem, and the baths he built for his wife. I shuddered, when passing the site of the old slave market, now the location of an Anglican church. Juxtaposed to these sights were symbols of the island’s totalitarian present. A coup had toppled the Oman government in 1965. The new one-party socialist regime was supported by the Eastern bloc. A football field named the Mao-Tse Tung stadium caught my eye. I noticed the V.I. Lenin hospital. The East Germans had built a library.

In the 20th century, the history of cloves came full circle. The East Indies, once the ancient stronghold of the clove, would reclaim its supremacy, toppling Zanzibar. Kretek, an addictive cigarette, helped bring about Zanzibar’s decline. (Kretek means “crackle,” the sound the cigarette makes.) Made up of two-thirds tobacco and one-third ground cloves, it was the brainchild, story has it, of a Javanese man named Haji Jamahiri. Sometime in the 19th century, Jamahiri, who thought cloves would make cigarettes healthier, came up with the idea. Originally made with cornhusks, they were especially popular with farmers because their covering protected them from the monsoon rains.

Pharmacies sold the cigarettes as a remedy for coughs and asthma. From its handicraft beginnings, the kretek business has spawned a mechanized industry with large companies, countless brands, and advertising. The cigarettes, now manufactured with paper, are flavored with an aromatic sauce — saus in the Indonesian language. Coriander, licorice, litchi nut, and pineapple, among other ingredients, perk up the product. “If you just put in tobacco and clove, it would taste funny,” Djoko Herryanto, a chemist who works for the industry, told The New York Times. “The blending is like making music — how to make the smell and the taste, the positive and negative flavors, all come into harmony.”

To satisfy its craving for the pungent incense, Indonesia, seeking the choicest cloves, began importing them from Zanzibar in 1930. A few years later, Dutch adventurers absconded with clove seeds from the island in order to plant them in Indonesia. Once clove-free, Zanzibar contributed to Indonesia’s resurgence as a clove producer. By the 1980s, the country was growing two-thirds and consuming two-thirds of the world’s spice.

A folklore grew up around the clove cigarette. One story recounts an exchange between Indonesia’s first ambassador to England and a British diplomat. The diplomat was curious what the Indonesian, who was enjoying a kretek, was smoking. The ambassador replied: “That, your Excellency, is the reason for which the West conquered the world.”

Tons of cloves may be going up in smoke, but the spice is still being used to ease our pain and suffering. It is reassuring that a pharmacy, Tschiffely’s, near my home in Washington, carries clove oil to relieve toothaches. “All dentists know about clove oil,” David Toth, one of the store’s pharmacists, told me. Dentists rely on a paste of clove oil and zinc oxide for temporary fillings. The clove oil acts as an anesthetic. During a recent root canal procedure, I was taken by surprise when I smelled the familiar fragrance.

A conversation with a local bakery clerk, who grew up in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital where I had spent a year, inevitably turned to cloves. Pointing to his mouth, the young man told me he applied a clove for a toothache. Our talk took me back to that morning almost 50 years ago when I first experienced the overpowering fragrance of cloves in Zanzibar harbor. I had learned a great deal about the spice since then, but it all paled compared to that early memory.


Hunting for Cloves

Jyoti (2433 18th St. NW; 202- 518-5892), the Indian restaurant in Adams-Morgan spices up curries like its chicken, lamb, and vegetable varieties with the spice mix garam masala, a key ingredient of which is cloves.

Viet-Thai (2408 18th St., NW; 202-399-1114), the recently opened Adams-Morgan eatery puts cloves in its pho, the classic Vietnamese soup.

Tschiffely Pharmacy (1145 19th St., NW; 202-466-8440 & 1330 Conn. Ave., NW; 202-331-1716), an old fashion pharmacy in the Dupont Circle area which carries oil of cloves.