Cloves, clove gilliflowers
clou de girofle (French)
(Eugenia aromatica, E. carophyllata, Syzygium aromaticum, Caryophyllus aromaticus, Jambosa caryophyllus – Family Myrtaceae)
Some authorities do not accept the separation of the genus Syzygium from Eugenia; but, the clove is closely related to the rose-apple, Jambolan, pitanga, and allspice. A clove is the unopened flower bud of an evergreen tree belonging to the Myrtle family. The trees can live for more than a century and thrive only in coastal areas, where it is said that their fragrance permeates the air and is carried far out to sea by winds. The trees can reach heights of forty feet and, if allowed, will bear clusters of brilliant scarlet flowers twice a year. Before they reach that stage, however, the greenish pink buds are gathered and dried to become the reddish brown powder available commercially. The four petals, with the stamens inside, form the quadrangular nail-like head of the clove. The French name literally means “nail of clove”, referring to the shape of the dried bud. The nail is also referred to in several other languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Persian, and Arabic. “Clove gilliflowers” is an ingredient named in early English recipes from the 17th and 18th centuries and refers to pinks (Dianthus caryophyllus). These flowers have the aroma of cloves.
Clove trees are native to the southeast Asian islands that make up Indonesia. In ancient times, these islands were known as the “Spice Islands”, and included what is now Java, Sumatra, the Celebes, the Lesser Sundas, and the Moluccas (eastern Indonesia). Today, the Malagasy Republic (Madagascar) and Zanzibar are also major producers; but the major consumer is Indonesia, which uses over 30,000 tons per year in the manufacture of ‘kretek’ cigarettes. Eugenol, which is also present in cinnamon, is the substance which gives cloves their distinctive aroma. Clove oil possesses strong antiseptic qualities, and has long been used for various medicinal purposes.
Used as a spice in southeast Asia and India since ancient times, cloves first became known in the West during the 7th century and, by the medieval period, was an important item of trade. The Dutch, who dominated the spice trade in the early 1600s, tried to increase the value of cloves by creating a “shortage” through the destruction of clove trees on all but two small islands of the East Indies. Continuing such a policy for well over a century, the Dutch reaped huge profits all the while stockpiling vast supplies in their warehouses in Batavia, and strictly controlling the quantity of the spice on the world market. By 1768, the Dutch had enough cloves on hand to supply all of Europe for ten years. Shortly thereafter, the French succeeded in destroying this Dutch market stronghold by establishing their own clove plantations in Madagascar and Mauritius. It was then that the spice ceased to be a luxury item and was, for the first time, made available to all cross sections of society.