Whenever I cook for Ingrid and we sit down at the Blue Table and I expectantly look into her face as she takes the first bit, she always says, “Hm, it’s nice but as usual it is completely under-spiced”. Then she goes to retrieve all those different spices I have in my kitchen cabinet. My relationship with spices is Ingrid’s most common criticism about me. Now that she has abandoned me for a month I decided it was a good time to educate myself on spices.
Hamburg actually has a Spice Museum and maybe the randomness of that made me wanted to go there. Our new friend, the professional cook, accompanied me. Spicy’s Spice Museum (the name sounds a little less ridiculous in German) is located in the old storage city because obviously that is where spices were traded. You walk up one of those old buildings and pass oriental carpet shops and opposite the museum is a store that sells all kinds of exotic spices.
As a historian, I was most interested to understand when spices came to Germany. I still wonder what food must have tasted like before salt, pepper and thyme. (Even though Ingrid would probably say my food tastes historically pre-spice.) It took quite some reading – the museum still uses very conventional display techniques – but I learned that Hamburg started trading spices in 1794 and is today one of the four biggest trade ports for spices. Germans actually did have peppar before the French Revolution, too, with the South Germans trading spice in the 1600s already. I do hope they sent some up here, too.
My companion and I thought about what our favorite spice is and I decided mine is saffron. Because that is in Persian rice and in Swedish buns. And because it is a luxury. Saffron has always been so expensive that in the middle ages, traders sold fake saffron to Germans. Apparently things got so bad that the town of Nuremburg appointed saffron viewers to prevent spice fraud.
I also learned that the pharao Ramses was buried with peppercorns in his nose which is perfectly visible on his x-rays and that pepper was extremely valueable even until well into the 1900s. Rich spice traders were therefore called “Pfeffersäcke” (pepper bags). And if you have a tooth ache and only have cloves in your house instead of Ibuprofen, you can put a clove into your cheeck pouch. It will make your tooth go numb and relieve your pain. If your breath smells bad, you need to chew on cardamom. I still wonder what it means that cardamom buns are so popular in Sweden.
Speaking about that,I learned that the Swedish word for cinnamon, kanel, refers to a special kind of cinnamon that even the Dutch and German call Canehl. As a spice-ignorant person I might also have been the last to understand that cinnamon is made from trees. Now I know!