Tea, Travel and Trade

My tea box. Thrilling, isn't it?

This morning a package arrived from my hometown in Texas with a birthday gift from my grandmother: a tea box.  Drinking tea is something I have only taken up relatively recently.  At first I used the occasional cup of tea as a social substitute for coffee, to which I am allergic (I know, I know – the horror!).  But while living in Istanbul a few years ago, daily cups of tea became a ritual – a pick-me-up in the morning with a warm simit (a bagel-like bread), the center of an afternoon break for a blisteringly hot, liberally sugared treat served in a delicate rose-shaped glass – I became addicted to tea not just for the caffeine but for the flavor and the aroma.  Now I seek out new teas to pick up as souvenirs during my travels.  When I sit down with a cup here in my home in Los Angeles, the smell of it can transport me back to the place where I first tasted that particular variety.  In the tea box I filled this morning, I have English and Celtic breakfast teas as well as nana (spearmint) tea from Jordan and a super-aromatic blueberry tea from the coast of Croatia.  If I want to take a quick mental trip, I  let a cup sit on my desk to steep while I read or write.

One of the truly amazing things about our modern world is how easy it is to acquire foodstuffs from foreign lands, whether we pick it up while visiting, buy it at a specialty market, or order it on the Internet. We have kobe beef from Japan, coffee from Hawaii and South America, or pistachios from the Middle East literally at our fingertips.  We often value these ingredients more highly than their domestic counterparts because it’s true that some products are simply better when they come from a certain environment.  Although it is much easier now than at any other time in the history of the world to acquire such luxury goods, the trade in food items from exotic locations is far from new.  As part of my research on the sensory experience of the ancient world, I have had the opportunity to learn very interesting facts about the history of some of the foods and spices that we now take for granted.  Just as I enjoy searching for local teas on my travels, ancient people carried their own savory souvenirs home from abroad to consume or sell, and the trade in food items and perfumes was a vital part of the ancient economy.  I thought readers might enjoy some of these interesting “tidbits” we know from archaeological and written sources about ancient trade in food and spices:

The Greeks and Romans used cilantro (coriander) in their cooking.  They certainly weren’t the first though –  archaeologists recovered samples of cilantro from the tomb of Tutankhamen, dated to about 1352 B.C.!

King Tut's tomb. Cilantro not pictured.

Ginger and pepper were also used in Rome, but they were incredibly expensive.  One Roman writer (Pliny the Elder) compared their prices to those of gold and silver. In fact, the same black pepper that we keep as an inexpensive staple of our pantries was so valuable in antiquity that Roman emperors stockpiled it in the treasury as an alternate form of currency.

In addition to using saffron in food, the Romans also occasionally mixed it with wine and sprayed it over the crowds at the theatre.  I haven’t tried this myself, but I imagine that it would have coated everyone in a slightly yellow, sticky, aromatic, and VERY expensive film.  Talk about conspicuous consumption!  Pound for pound (or, really, ounce for ounce), saffron is still the most expensive spice in the world.

Very rare spices became symbolic of their place of origin in the ancient world, which made them political tools.  Balsam of Mecca, also called Balsam of Palestine, which was used as a medicine and as a men’s grooming item, was said to grow only in two royal groves in Palestine.  As the Roman army approached the Jewish capital in the first century A.D., the defenders attempted to destroy the groves to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy.  They were unsuccessful, and the Romans transplanted some of the trees to Rome.  The political message was clear; as Pliny noted, “The balsam-tree is now a subject of Rome, and pays tribute together with the race to which it belongs.”  Sadly, the transplanted trees did not survive in their new environment.

The demand for some spices in the ancient world was so great that it may have caused their extinction.  Silphium, a spice used as a digestif and to ease the pain of toothaches, seems to have disappeared in the first century A.D.  Roman writers say that the last stalk found growing in the wild was given to the emperor Nero as a gift, and we know of the plant only through images of it struck on ancient coins minted in the area where it grew.  Recently, however, the Italian archaeologist Antonio Manunta compared the plant Cachrys ferulacea that grows only in eastern Libya to the ancient coin images and suggested that it may, in fact, be silphium.  Unfortunately, Libya is not the easiest place to conduct further research at the present time.

Silphium on a coin from Cyrene (modern Libya), late 6th or early 5th century B.C.

Ambergris was another rare and popular trade item.  What is it?  It’s a dried form of something that is secreted or regurgitated by sperm whales.  That’s right, it’s either whale vomit or whale feces that floats around in the ocean until it washes up on shore where it can be collected.  The Romans used it in perfumes.  Think it sounds like something you absolutely would not want to put on your body?  Better read your labels closely then, because it’s still a major component of many fine perfumes, such as Miss Dior.

Nero, the big spender

The Romans spent massive amounts of money on frankincense, which did and still does come from the Arabian peninsula, much of it from the area now occupied by the nation of Oman.  Pliny reports that when  Nero’s wife Poppaea died in 65 A.D. (possibly kicked to death by Nero himself), the emeperor sprinkled and burned  more than a full year’s worth of the spice production of Arabia (which surely included frankincense) over the course of one day of the public rites of mourning!  An exaggeration perhaps, but it does give us an idea of how lavishly the Romans spent on exotic spices and perfumes.


These are only a few examples of the ways some ancient cultures employed spices and perfumes in their daily lives, and as trade items.  There are many questions that historians and archaeologists have been unable to answer – we know, for example, that many ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Hebrews and Romans used cinnamon, but we don’t know where in the ancient world cinnamon came from.  In the fifth century B.C., the Greek writer Herodotus wrote that giant birds used cinnamon sticks from some unknown source to build their nests, but Pliny later claimed that that story was a bunch of hooey cooked up by cinnamon traders to inflate prices.  Modern cinnamon is native to Southeast Asia and it is likely that that was the source in antiquity as well, but the closely-guarded secret of its origins remained a mystery for millennia to all but those who cultivated and sold it.
Speaking of cinnamon, a nice cup of cinnamon tea sounds good right about now.  Luckily, I can pick up a packet at my local grocery store, no giant bird-corralling necessary!

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