How spices became an acquired taste

Taste of Conquest cover

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

BOB MOON: Let's talk turkey. Tasty, moist, savory. But I recommend a little spice, a little pepper certainly. And, if you're real bold, some cumin or turmeric. Same goes for the pumpkin pie. Can you imagine it without that hint of nutmeg, or cloves? Spices make the meal. But, ya know, they weren't always so plentiful. Joining us to chew over the history of the spice business is Michael Krondl. He's got a book out called "The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice." Greetings, Michael.

MICHAEL KRONDL: Hi there.

MOON: I recall what I learned back in history and social studies classes about the spice trade. It's been awhile though, so I recall it all pretty vaguely. Check me out on this. You had the Venetians, the Portuguese, and the Dutch as the chief suppliers of spice during the 16th and 17th century. But with all of the history of the spice trade, how big of a market was this really? Who were the consumers?

KRONDL: Well, the thing about the spice trade was that consumers were a tiny part of the population. You only had maybe three, maybe 5 percent of Europeans who could actually afford the stuff, and there wasn't that much imported. At the very very height of the Portuguese empire they were bringing back something like six ships full of pepper, and that was financing their entire empire. It was really kind of amazing.

MOON: But if the market was so limited, why go to all the trouble?

KRONDL: Money. Why do people go to trouble? Money. You could pick up pepper, now pepper remember is something that just grows in the woods in tropical rain forests in India. You could pick it up, pay people next to nothing to forage it, and then by the time you got to London you could sell it for 20 times as much. With nutmeg, and cloves and all those sorts of things the margins were even higher, so that by the time the Dutch got into it they could pickup nutmeg for, you know $1 equivalent lets say and they could sell it for $100. There was a lot of money to be made.

MOON: Yeah, and where was this money made so to speak at retail, or was it the middle men that raked it all in?

KRONDL: Well, the reason that the Portuguese, and then later the Dutch, got into it was to cut out the middle men. Because originally it was the middle man who were making the real money. And then by the time it had made its way from India, through the Middle East, through Alexandria, all the way to Venice, the Venetians were making a good percentage as well. They were making perhaps as much as 40 percent. One of the interesting facts I came across was that Venetian pepper dealers had a net profit of roughly double what Florentine bankers were making in those days, which was a pretty hefty amount of money.

MOON: Wow, pepper was more valuable than being in the banking business?

KRONDL: The pepper business was more valuable than being in the banking business, absolutely. And that's why Venice became so financially prominent in the Middle Ages.

MOON: Well let's fast-forward quite a bit here. Who's the spice leader today?

KRONDL: If there is a new East India company, a Dutch East India company, it's McCormick. McCormick, based in Baltimore, they now have companies in France. They dominate the market in England. They have a presence in Holland, in Canada of course, in Mexico, and then here. And Americans are eating twice as much spice today as they were a generation ago but they're not actually sprinkling the stuff at home on their plates. What they're doing is they're eating more processed food. And all the processed food from you know the KFC to the sauce that goes on the Big Mac, all of it has spices in it. And McCormick has managed to get into the business of supplying large corporations. Most of their business isn't retail. Mind you, they're making a killing on the retail. If you look at the difference in how much pepper costs in India and how much pepper costs in your local grocery store, somebody's making a lot of money.

MOON:But not 2,000 percent. I'd imagine?

KRONDL:No, maybe like 1,000 percent.

MOON:Wow.

KRONDL:Look at the markup. Five-fifty for a little jar of spices? It doesn't cost that much on the pepper exchange in Calcutta.

MOON:Michael Krondl is the author of "The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice." Michael thanks for joining us.

KRONDL:Thanks so much for having me.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...