Yesterday was the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere (also known as the Winter Solstice). At my home in the UK we received less than 8 hours of daylight today before the night closed in again, and the weather at this time of year is generally rather grey and damp. The gloom outside makes December my least favourite time of year, but I must confess that the food, drink and other traditions that accompany this period do help to make up for it.
Lots of the winter/Christmas themed foods eaten in the UK and other European countries are traditionally flavoured with spices. One of my favourite of these spices is the clove. Cloves are the dried flower buds of a medium-sized tree called Syzygium aromaticum, which is native to the ‘Spice Islands’ of Indonesia. It is one of the most valuable spices in the world and has been used for centuries as a flavouring, preservative and in medicinal remedies.
Cloves were so valuable in the 17th Century that when the Dutch seized control of the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, they guarded the production of cloves very carefully and made the unauthorized trading of this spice a crime punishable by death. The Dutch monopoly on clove allowed them to keep the price of the spice artificially high, but clove trees were common enough on the Maluku Islands that the French managed to smuggle some off the island in 1772. Today clove is grown in a variety of tropical countries around the globe including: Indonesia, Zanzibar, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and Brazil.
Clove has many uses in both traditional and modern medicine. It acts as an antioxidant, and also has activity against some bacteria, fungi and viruses. It also has pain killing properties and research suggests that particular molecules in cloves may have the potential to be used to treat cancer. Many of these properties appear to be due to the presence of an oil called eugenol. Clove represents one of the richest sources of this oil, which is also used in perfumes and manufacturing.
The tasty seasonal foods may be healthier than I previously thought…
- Kew Science: Syzygium aromaticum (clove) http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/syzygium-aromaticum-clove
- Cortés-Rojas DF, de Souza CRF, Oliveira WP. Clove (Syzygium aromaticum): a precious spice. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine. 2014;4(2):90-96. doi:10.1016/S2221-1691(14)60215-X. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3819475/