Monday, September 24, 2007

On Cloves.

September 24th

Samuel Pepys got himself a bargain on this day in 1665:

“…. And there, after breakfast, one of our watermen told us he had heard of a bargain of Cloves for us. And we went to a blind alehouse at the end of the town, to a couple of wretched, dirty seamen, who, poor wretches, had got together about 37 lb. of Cloves and 10 lb. of Nuttmeggs. And we bought all of them – the first at 5s. 6d. per lb and the latter at 4s. – and paid them in gold …..”

I get the distinct impression that our old friend Sam Pepys did not care to enquire too deeply into the source of the cloves. At least the poor wretches who sold them were a lot less poor at the end of the transaction:

- 5s. 6d. in 1665, is approximately equivalent today to ₤ 31.60 UK = $63 US = $75.8 AUD

- 4s. in 1665, is equivalent today to ₤ 23 = $45.8 US = $ 55 AUD

Which means, by my reckoning, the wretches made away with almost $2,800 U.S in today's money. No doubt Sam himself made a decent profit too when he on-sold them.

Cloves are the dried flower buds of Caryophyllus aromaticus, a tree originating in the Moluccas - the original Spice Islands, now part of Indonesia. The desire for them (and other spices) drove many of the early European voyages of exploration, and successful traders made fortunes. Their value lay as much if not more in their medicinal than their culinary use. To judge from the Household Dictionary of William Salmon (1695), they were a great panacea. He says:

They help Digestions, stay the Flux of the Belly, and are binding; they clear the sight, and the powder of them consumes and takes away the Web or Film in the Eye, as also Clouds and Spots: being beaten to Powder, and drunk with Wine or the Juice of Quinces they stay Vomiting, restore lost Appetite, fortifie the Stomach and Head, gently warm an over-cold Liver: and for this Reason they are given with success to such as have the Dropsie; the smell of the Oil of them is good against fainting Fits and Swoonings; and being chewed, they sweeten the Breath, and fasten the Teeth; the Powder of them in White-wine is given for Falling-Sickness, or Palsie, the distilled Water of Cloves is good against Surfeits and pestilential Diseases; receiving the Smoak of the Cloves into the Nostrils whilst they are burning on a Chafing-dish of Coals, opens the Pores of the Head.

Today’s recipe, inspired by the nautical location of the story, is from a famous cookbook of Pepys’ era – The Accomplisht Cook, by Robert May (1660). Naturally, it contains cloves. It is also quite do-able today.

To Stew a small Salmon, Salmon Peal, or Trout.
Take a Salmon, draw it, scotch the back, and boil it whole in a stew pan with white wine, (or in pieces) put to it also some whole cloves, large mace, slic’t ginger, a bay leaf or two, a bundle of sweet herbs well and hard bound up, some whole pepper, salt, some butter and vinegar, and an orange in halves; stew all together, and being well stewed, dish them in a clean scowred dish with carved sippets, lay on the spices and slict’t lemon, and run it over with beaten butter, and some of the gravy it was stewed in; garnish the dish with some fine searsed manchet, or searsed ginger.

Tomorrow’s Story …

On Corned Beef.

Quotation for the Day …

Salmon are like men: too soft a life is not good for them. James de Coquet.


Anonymous said...

"Nathaniel's Nutmeg" by Giles Milton is a thoroughly fascinating read, with all sorts of interesting tidbits about cloves and other spices. Cloves were once said to cure earache and Marco Polo was the first European to describe the clove tree, 'a little tree with leaves like laurel', but his claim to have seen one in mainland China owes more to his imagination than to reality for, unbeknown to the Venetian,the tree could only be found on a handful of islands in the Indonesian archipelago. If you want to learn more about the Sprice trade, I recommend this book to you.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Colleen!
I've been meaning to read that for ages - thanks for reminding me. Lucky me - I have a sister who works in a book shop!