A muddy walk through the history of Venice, Lisbon and Amsterdam, whose heydays were all linked to the lucrative spice trade.
Food writer Krondl (Around <\b>the American Table: Treasured Recipes and Food Traditions from the American Cookery Collections of the New York Public Library<\b>, 1995, etc.) debunks the myth that spices were used over the centuries to mask rancid food. He attempts to understand the demand that prompted Europeans to explore and conquer the world. Spices were a luxury, often used as payment and literally worth their weight in gold. Coming from exotic places few could reach, they represented the aroma and taste of paradise. Fantastic profits could be made in the spice trade. With its strong links to the Byzantine Empire, Venice muscled in on the Mediterranean route, and soon “pepper was the lubricant of trade.” The Crusades spread the taste for spices, but the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 effectively sealed the Venetians’ routes. Soon the Portuguese made incursions. King João I sent out looting caravels for West African gold and melegueta pepper; Portuguese explorers braved the seas around the Cape of Good Hope in search of Prester John and Indian black pepper. Vasco da Gama made a momentous advance for the Portuguese by establishing a route from Lisbon to the Spice Islands in the South Pacific. When the Portuguese crown fell to Philip II of Spain in 1580, the prosperous Dutch, inspired by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten’s how-to on the spice trade, took up the slack through the corporate arms of the East India Company. Krondl scrambles and dodges to cover an enormous amount of ground, from spice wars and slavery to disease and the use of spices for medicinal purposes. Trying to do too much, he produces a loose, unscholarly text that many will find difficult to digest.
Many separate strands of this compelling story deserve to be pursued further by more focused historians.