There are two quite different types of cloves in our kitchens: the fragrant dried flower buds of Caryophyllus aromaticus that we use as a sweet spice, and the segments of garlic that we break off from the bulb. How is it that two such different foods are connected by name?
The answer is that they are derived from two different words. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that ‘clove’ as it is used to refer to garlic comes to us from an old German word for cleft (as in a ‘cloven hoof), which makes eminent sense as one splits or cleaves off each individual segment from the bulb. To avoid being beaten about the head with an old dictionary by some of you word pedants out there, I should indicate that I am now aware that a ‘segment’ of garlic can also be referred to as a ‘bulb’ - which is part of the ‘compound bulb’ of the garlic root. Had I been aware of this some weeks ago, I might not have attributed the apparent discrepancy between recipes for garlic butter to a translation error. I live to learn.
In the case of the spicy clove, the word appears to come from the French clou meaning a nail, which also make eminent sense as soon as one looks at a whole clove, doesn’t it?
As an interesting food aside, the OED also informs us that a ‘clove’ was also ‘a weight formerly used for wool and cheese, equal to 7 or 8 lbs.avoirdupois.’ The word in this case also appears to derive ultimately from the word for nail via the Latin clavus (and thence the Anglo-Norman clou), but OED is baffled as to the connection with weights and measures. Ignorance of the etymological details does not spoil my enjoyment of the concept of ‘a clove of cheese’ one tiny whit, I have to say.
The spicy kind of cloves plays a part in most of our fruit cakes and Christmas puddings, but once upon a time, particularly in parts of the USA, it seems that it used to take a starring role. I give you three recipes for clove cake – one unleavened, which would be somewhat like a ginger-biscuit dough, one leavened with yeast and so a sort of sweet fruit bread, and the third, moving into more modern times, leavened with an early type of baking powder.
Three pounds of flour, one of butter, one of sugar, three eggs, two spoonfuls of cloves - mix with molasses.
The American Farmer, 1828
One pound sugar, one pound flour, one-half pound of butter, four eggs, one cupe of EWELL’S X.L. DAIRY BOTTLED MILK, two teaspoons yeast powder, one teaspoon of mace, one of cloves, one of cinnamon, one large cup of raisins, the same of currants, and some citron.
One Thousand and One Useful and Valuable Hints About Cooking. Edited by Ewell’s XL Dairy Bottled Milk Company (1890)
One tea-cup of sugar, one coffee-cup molasses, three cups of flour, half a cup of butter, two thirds of a cup of sour milk, one coffee-cup of raisins, three eggs, two tea-spoonfuls cinnamon, one of cloves, one nutmeg, one tea-spoonful saleratus.
The Practical Cook Book, Helen M Robinson, 1864.
Quotation for the Day.
The clove is a handsome tree.
E. Lankester, 1832