Holiday gingerbread men would miss their zing. Baked ham wouldn’t be the same. Mulled cider wouldn’t be so warming. Cloves, these small flower buds, can make all the difference in the world — and they flavor a world’s worth of cuisine.
Cloves, named for their nail-like appearance (Clavus means nail in Latin), originated in the Spice Islands, but early explorers brought them to the far reaches of the globe. In Han-dynasty China, high court officials were required to carry cloves in their mouths to sweeten their breath when addressing the emperor. Cloves’ medicinal properties as an antiseptic were known to the writers of India’s Ayurvedic texts too. Emperor Constantine offered a gift to the Bishop of Rome in the fourth century that included almost 150 pounds of cloves.
By the Middle Ages, the medicinal properties of this master spice were well known, and they were used in aromatic pomander balls that were thought to rid the air of plague-causing miasmas. Bernadus Paladanus, a physician in the mid-16th century, proclaimed the wonder of cloves declaring, “Cloves give a clear breath, force the wind, stop diarrhea, and cure upset stomach.” Cloves are still much exploited to flavor toothpastes and mouthwashes.
As cloves came into widespread culinary use in Europe in the 14th century, they became a part of the motivation for world exploration. The legendary Spice Islands, inspiration for more than one captain in the Age of Exploration, was the lone region where the clove-producing tree (a relative of the myrtle) grew. It wasn’t until the 18th century that Frenchman Pierre Poivre (the Peter Pepper of tongue-twister fame) broke the Dutch monopoly on the spice by surreptitiously bringing clove tree seedlings to Mauritius. From there, cloves were spread to Zanzibar and Pemba, islands off the east coast of Africa that are now the world’s largest producers of the spice. The trees also made it to Grenada, which is the Western Hemisphere’s largest producer.
Cloves’ aromatic pungency has now reached all corners of the globe and turned up in many of the world’s spice mixtures, including China’s five-spice powder and the pickling spices of Northern Europe. Cloves blend wonderfully with ginger and cinnamon in baking spices and appear in mulling spices that flavor wines and ciders during the holidays. Any time of the year, they can turn up in Indian curry powders and masalas, and a clove-studded onion has added a faint je ne sais quoi to more than one fancy French stock.
The rest of us are more than happy to settle for fragrant hint of one of the world’s favorite spices that is as exotic as Ethiopia’s berberes and as familiar as the fragrance of Mom’s apple pie.
A note on cooking with cloves:Whole cloves are readily available and can be purchased in bulk. As with any spice, however, they lose their pungency over time. Ground cloves should be purchased only in small quantities and used rapidly before they lose their kick. Pulverize your own instead, putting the tops of the stem and the bud in a spice grinder (or a coffee grinder kept for that purpose) and let it whir away until you have the desired quantity.
Place all of the ingredients into a non-reactive saucepan. Warm over low heat, stirring until the liquid is hot and the sugar dissolved. Do not allow it to boil as the alcohol will evaporate. Ladle into cups or Irish coffee glasses. Serve hot.
2 cups moscato di Asti, vin de muscat or light sweet dessert wine
4 tablespoons superfine sugar, or to taste
1 cinnamon stick
1/16 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
pinch ground ginger
1 star anise
1 strip lime zest
1 strip orange zest
2 tablespoons Cointreau
12 clementines, peeled, with the membrane removed
Place all of the ingredients, except the clementines, into a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Then immediately lower the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Cut the clementines in half and arrange them in a shallow bowl. Strain the flavored liquid over the clementines, cover with plastic wrap, and chill overnight. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Jessica Harrisis the author of 10 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora.