Cloves are an ancient spice whose use dates back over 2000 years when they were used to "sweeten the breath" of those who had an audience with the Chinese Emperor. While today, we have other means of sweetening our breath, cloves are still used for both culinary as well as medicinal purposes.

Originating in the Molucca or Spice Islands, which is now part of Indonesia, cloves were one of the worlds most popular and costly spices. Worth more than it's weight in gold, cloves were revered by the elite and anyone who traded in them was sure to make a lot of money.

Arab traders introduced cloves to Europe in the 4th century, but the story of cloves soon became a part of the turbulent history of trade and conquest that began in the 1400s. By the 16th century Portugal had conquered the the Moluccas and controlled the trade in cloves as well as other spices. In the 17th century the Dutch took over and made sure that the price of cloves remained high by keeping the supply low even if it meant burning down clove trees! In the early 1800s the British opened trade in cloves by planting trees elsewhere including Zanzibar which is now the largest exporter of cloves in the world.

Cloves are probably the most easy to recognize spice. They look like small thick nails with a dark brown stem and lighter colored head. Their shape is actually how they got their name, from either the Latin "clavus" or the French "clou" both of which mean nail1. They are actually flower buds which come from the tropical evergreen clove tree. This tree produces white flowers after it has been growing about 5 years. The buds are green at first, then start to turn pink as they mature. The buds are hand picked just as they turn pink and are dried in the sun. A clove tree can produce 40 pound of cloves in each harvest.

Cloves are probably recognized by most people when they are studded into a ham, but the can be used in many dishes from chicken to beef to desserts and even stews and sauces. They are a main spice in Indian cuisine and are part of many spice mixes including the Chinese Five Spices.

Cloves are well known in Eastern cultures for their medicinal properties. In generations past they were used in dentistry for their anesthetic properties, which are a result of the eugenol oil contained in the clove. Cloves can help heal a toothache and they also have antiseptic and antibacterial properties to help slow decay. Cloves also are used to help heal digestive problems, headaches, and earaches. Cloves are also an antispasmodic. So they can help relieve coughs and, when applied topically, can help with muscle spasms. The eugenol oil is also said to help with styes, ulcers and skin sores.

Next Page: History of Cloves

1. Online Etymology Dictionary

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