(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 1, 2009. We hope you enjoy it as we count down to Christmas but please remember that authors of previously publilshed articles may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)
Good intentions are not always well met. I tried my hardest, but sometimes my curiosity got the best of me, and I ended up in more trouble than I knew what to do with. This was one of those situations that I could not talk my way out of.
I had learned about spices from the nutmeg that Mom sprinkled on my French toast and donuts. I knew that some of the donuts might be sprinkled with cinnamon, too, and of course there was always ginger in Ninna's gingerbread. I discovered another when Mom added cloves to the spiced tea she made for a Christmas gathering. Now if I were a psychologist, I might decide that it was all about comfort food and wonderful family moments. Truthfully, it wasn't either of those, because I was usually getting lectures about starving children in another part of the world when I wouldn't eat at mealtime; and family moments were most often alarming because I had done some dastardly deed that brought wrath down upon me. Actually, I just liked the smell of some things, and for awhile spices were at the top of my list.
The first time I reluctantly visited the dentist, well actually I might have been kicking and screaming, he used a medicine to numb the area of my tooth that he was investigating with his sharp instruments. I was close to six years old, and I remember thinking that medicine tasted pretty good. I didn't want to admit it, because to do so would certainly take away from the screaming fit I was indulging in, but when finally the procedure was over and I was on my way home, I asked my mother about that flavor, and she told me it was clove, a spice that I already knew about. I decided the dentist might not be all bad if he used my favorite spices.
According to writings of Chinese physicians, along about the first century court visitors were required to hold cloves in their mouths when addressing the emperor, presumably so that he would not be offended by their bad breath. By the 4th century, Europeans had heard about the pungent and aromatic flower buds, and they began a trade with the Arabs who acquired the dried buds from the east. Later, cloves were among the precious spices for which European nations competed. So important were the spices that fierce trade wars began between the Portuguese and Dutch during the 17th century. The clove tree was native to many of the Spice Islands, but the Dutch established a monopoly by destroying all of the trees except those that grew on one island, Ambon, which they owned. Eventually the French began to cultivate the clove tree on their islands, and by the beginning of the 19th century, cloves were being grown on plantations on many islands. Zanzibar has long been a major grower, and other clove producing countries include Jamaica, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Indonesians consume more than half the world's clove supply; they mix the spice with tobacco to make a special kind of cigarette.
The clove tree, Syzygium aromaticum, is a broad leafed evergreen that can reach a height of about 35 feet. It has smooth shiny leaves that are dotted with glands that emit the tree's aromatic fragrance. Even more fragrant are the tiny yellow flowers that appear in loose clusters at the ends of the branches. Those flowers are seldom allowed to bloom. When the pink buds turn fiery red at the base, they are plucked and sun dried to a deep reddish brown. These dried buds are the delicious smelling cloves known to pharmacists and chefs world wide.
Although kitchens are the primary consumers of cloves, a large number of the small dried buds go to processing plants where clove oil is extracted by distillation. This essential oil holds the chemicals eugenol and eugenyl acetate, which accounts for most of clove's culinary and medicinal properties. Oil of clove is widely used by dentists in fillings and cements as well as extractions. The pungent smell of clove also lends itself to soaps, lotions, and toothpastes. Cloves possess both antiseptic and anodyne, which have pain relieving qualities.
Generations of folk healers and dentists have prescribed cloves or clove oil to relieve toothache. Herbal literature of many lands recommends clove tea, made by steeping the buds in boiling water, to cure nausea and other stomach distress. Tinctures of clove oil are also effective against such disease-causing fungi as those that cause athlete's foot.
Before Christmas, my mother had let me help punch clove buds into oranges, and the scent of cloves and citrus filled the downstairs rooms of our house. I thought it would be a good idea to hang one of the scented balls in my closet and my room upstairs, and she helped me to do that. But that wasn't enough, I wanted all those good smells to permeate my bed linens, my clothes, my hair, everything. I simply loved the smell. I went to the kitchen, and without asking, climbed up on the step stool and helped myself to the spice rack. I found cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, probably others that I no longer remember, and I sprinkled a liberal amount of all of them into a cup. I took them back up to my room. I really didn't understand that they needed heat or liquid to create the subtle scent, all I knew was that they should make my clothes smell good, so I dumped the entire cup of spices in my socks and undies drawers. I also think I sprinkled some in my bed clothes and I definitely sprinkled some on my pillow case.
I went to bed that night damp from my bath, and the next morning I noticed that my hair smelled wonderful, as did my socks and my undies. I wasn't tall enough to see in my mirror without climbing on something, so I simply brushed my hair to get the tangles out, all the time admiring the wonderful scent of spices all over my room. I bounced into the kitchen with my usual grace and charm. My mother took one look and yelled: "What have you been into? What is that mess on your face and in your hair?" My memory conveniently closes down at that point. I don't know if you have ever had an occasion to rub a powdered spice over dampened skin and hair or not, but trust me, those spices leave a reddish brown stain on both. Mom marched me into her bedroom, and stood me up on her vanity bench in front of her mirror.
I was not pretty, but I really did smell good.
'Tis the season for spices, and the long ago memories their scents evoke. Enjoy them, and may they bring to you the wonderful warmth of happy holidays.
The first photo is from Plant Files, thanks to the photographer, Zonal007. All other photos are from Wiki Public Domain.