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Cloves are one of the oldest spices in existence and have a culinary and medical history dating back thousands of years. This pungent, aromatic spice comes from the flower buds of the evergreen tree Syzygium aromaticum. Whole clove buds are small, reddish-brown spikes around 1cm in length and get their name from the French word ‘clou’ meaning ‘nail’. Clove buds are harvested while still immature and then dried.
Cloves are native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, once known as the Spice Islands. The name came about in the 16th century when the islands became an important part of the trade routes. Although spices existed in Europe in the Middle Ages, they weren’t so readily available. The long and dangerous journeys to and from Asia made prices very steep, and it was the desire for cheaper spices and seasonings that sparked the beginning of the spice trade.
As well as cloves, the Spice Islands were known for their nutmeg and mace which were only native to those islands. The spice trade thrived well before European traders arrived, with Chinese silks, Indian cottons, Arabian coffee and African ivory all used as currency to buy spices.
As word grew about these potent spices, it became the focus of trade wars between European empires such as the Dutch, Portugese, Spanish and British. The Dutch even took it further by burning down every clove tree that didn’t grow in the Dutch-controlled area of the islands to ensure a monopoly on the spices.
Today, cloves are also grown in Madagascar, Sri Lanka, India, Tanzania, Zanzibar and other hot, tropical areas as the tree grows best in humid environments.
If you’re interested in reading more about the history of the Spice Islands, take a look at our blog post here.
Cloves have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, especially in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. They have antibacterial and microbial properties, and can help to improve digestion and reduce inflammation. In Ancient China, cloves were used as an oral antiseptic for people who wanted to meet with the emperor to guarantee their breath was as fresh as possible. In Indonesia, cloves are used in the kretek clove cigarettes which are made up of ground clove buds, clove oil and additional spices like cumin, cinnamon and nutmeg.
In culinary uses, cloves can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. They are commonly found in spice blends such as Chinese five-spice powder and garam masala. They can be used to flavour sauces, soups, rice dishes, vegetables, meat rubs and marinades. Cloves are also used in many desserts, especially for holiday themed dishes like eggnog, pumpkin pie, gingerbread, stewed apples and pears. You can also use cloves in beverages like mulled wine, masala chai tea and apple cider.
Whole cloves should be removed from dishes before serving as they have a hard, unpleasant texture when bitten into.
Keen to try it out? You can find whole cloves on our website here. Here are some great recipes which use the spice: