Sunday, 25 September 2011

Zanzibar - the curious cultivating of cloves

When you look at Unguja (Zanzibar Island) and Pemba on the map, you can't help comparing them to two cloves studding the surface of the Indian ocean.  Trade in cloves has a long history, going back as far as Roman times. The cultivation of cloves has played an incredibly important part in the history of Zanzibar and was the source of much wealth for Zanzibar's previous owners, the sultans of Oman. 

Along with Mafia Island, which is further south, Unguja and Pemba were often referred to as 'the Spice Islands'.  These African spice islands weren't quite as famous as the Spice islands of Indonesia, Maluku, where the some of the world's most valuable spices (including nutmeg and cloves) originated. 

The flag of independent Zanzibar
Cloves were introduced to Zanzibar from the French colony of Mauritius in the early part of the 19th century.  Cloves were first grown on Unguja, before cultivation was moved to Pemba, which became the biggest clove-producer in the world.  To see how important clove production was to the country, you just have to look at the flag of the short lived independent Zanzibar, which contained two cloves on a red background. 

The Clove economy

Just as Yemen has lost out in terms of coffee production Zanzibar, in more recent years, has lost its prime position as the centre of clove cultivation.  This was mostly due to bad economic policies of Tanzania's socialist government in the 1960's, combined with a massive increase in clove production in Indonesia in the 1980's, which brought down the price of cloves on the worldwide market.  Today Tanzania ranks a distant third in terms of clove production, behind Indonesia and Madagascar.  There was an attempt to privatise the industry in 2007, but it might be a case of 'too little, too late'

An essential ingredient!

A hot whiskey by bmeabroad
I think the first time I saw a clove was in a hot whiskey, when I was about 20 years old!  We had a particularly cold winter and I have fond memories of braving the frost and snow with my sisters, to visit the local pub, hot whiskey with cloves being the best thing to melt the icicles hanging from our noses!  The taste reminded me of the stripey sweets I used to love as a child.  I now know these are called clove satins, but I'm sure we called them something else back then!  As an adult, I absolutely love the taste of cloves and use them quite a bit when I'm cooking, especially in Indian foods like curries and biryanis.

What's in a clove?

It surprised me to learn that cloves are basically flower buds that haven't yet opened.  They belong to the wider family known as angiosperms which are plants that produce seeds and flowers.  Cloves are related to myrtle and other plants such as Australian white apples and bush cherries.  They are red when harvested, but the version that reaches us on the other side of the world, looks shrivelled and black.

Etymology of the name

Cloves by me
The English word 'clove' comes from the Latin clavus meaning 'nail'.  They do look like those little wooden nails you see in traditional buildings and furniture and the nail reference has been borrowed into most languages, so you have hřebíček (little nail) in Czech, szegfűszeg (nail spice) in Hungarian, гвоздика gvozdika (little nail) in Russian etc.  

There is an interesting relationship between the English word for clove and the verb to cleave, which means to part or separate (possibly by hammering in a nail!).  The Latin name for clove is syzygium aromaticum - the syzygium bit referring to the cloves 'petals' being joined together.  

Cloves in Europe

Cloves have been used in lots of different ways around the world.  Apart from boiled sweets and hot whiskies, cloves have also been used in some European cuisines.  The Dutch seem to be particularly fond of the taste, which is not surprising, as they colonised Indonesia and cloves are used in traditional Dutch recipes for cookies and stews.  

Clove cigarettes and fragrances 

Clove cigarettes by Sarah Mae
One of the things that has been driving forward clove production in Indonesia is the fact that clove oil is used in the production of kretek ie. cheap Indonesian cigarettes.  An estimated 90% of Indonesians smoke kreteks and the kretek industry is massive, employing around 10 million people.  In the West, in the Goth sub-culture, clove cigarettes gained popularity due to their dark and pungent aroma!

In some countries like China and Japan, Oil of Cloves has been used in the production of incense and even fragrances.  By all accounts, anyone who wanted to have an audience with the Emperor of China was encouraged to chew cloves before being admitted to his presence, to get rid of the smell of bad breath.

Good for your health?

Oil of Cloves by Amanda Slater
Cloves have also been used extensively in medicine and dentistry.  Oil of cloves is a remedy for toothache and cloves are also believed to be natural anthelmintics, ie. they can get rid of parasitic worms.  In the Ayurvedic tradition, cloves are believed to increase heat in the system.  Chinese medicine also sees cloves as a 'hot' element, which can relieve stomach ache, but shouldn't be used for the treatment of 'fire' conditions.  Perhaps this passionate 'heat' of cloves is the reason why some cultures also believe they can prevent premature ejaculation!  

The Spice trade

When I was researching the history of Venice, I learned how important the spice trade was to Europe.  Wars were fought over spices and cloves and nutmeg were literally worth their weight in gold.  The search for new trade routes to India, ultimately led to the 'discovery' of America by Europeans.  Honestly, the lengths people will go to get a decent curry!  

Footage from Zanzibar in 1925

I'm going to leave you with a link to some fascinating footage from - it was filmed in 1925 as part of the British Instructional Film's Empire series.  It's amazing really to look at images of Zanzibar from almost a century ago.  At that time Zanzibar produced around 90% of the world's cloves and this short film shows the process that was used to harvest the clove crop.  

PS - don't worry, there's nothing wrong with the sound on your computer, it's a silent movie!

Image credits:

The image of the hot whiskey with a slice of lemon and cloves is by flickr member bmeabroad - you can see more of bmeabroad's images at their photostream

The image of the cloves was taken by me.

The image of the clove cigarettes is by Sarah Mae who is a librarian, originally from Hyattsville in Maryland.  This image was taken from her flickr photostream, but you can find out more about Sarah at her website.  Djarum is one of Indonesia's biggest kretek brands, but as you can see from the photograph, these cigarettes are also sold in the United States. 

The image of the bottle of Oil of Cloves is by amandabhslater aka Amanda Slater, who is a retired Analytical Chemist from New Malden in Surrey.  Amanda has taken up digital photography on her retirement and you can see more of her images at her photostream on Flickr.  

Thanks to Sarah and Amanda for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License. 

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