Peppers, Nutmeg, and Cloves
By Casey Kowalski 3/16/14
Pepper, nutmeg, and cloves are some of the most important molecules in history. The earliest use of pepper in Europe was in the fifth century B.C., when the Greeks used it as an antidote to poison. However, pepper and similar spices were soon used as a preservative and a flavor enhancer to disguise the taste of slightly rancid or heavily salted foods. Because of this, pepper and similar spices were a very lucrative trade for Europeans. Almost all of the spice trade flowed through Venice because of its geographic location, quickly giving rise to a Venetian monopoly of the spice trade. Venice then greatly increased the price of spices coming through it, which prompted other countries such as Portugal and Spain, to seek alternate routes to India. This led to the Age of Discovery, and ultimately, the discovery of the New World.
The chemical structure of these spices are what brought them to glory. The active molecule in pepper, for instance, is piperine (C17H19O3N). It gives people the hot sensation they associate with pepper by fitting into a protein on the nerve endings in the mouth. This causes the nerve to send a signal to the brain, which people perceive as hot.
Nutmeg and cloves, however, are known for their aroma more than anything. Although their scents are very different, the molecules are very similar. Both eugenol, from cloves, and isoeugenol, from nutmeg, have aromatic rings in them. They differ only in a double which is in a slightly different location in eugenol than isoeugenol, but it makes a huge difference between the scents of the two plants.
The authors of the book claim that these spices and others like them are what brought about the Age of Discovery and the finding of the new world. I agree with them to an extent. First off, I do not believe that spices were the sole reason that the Age of Discovery came about. I believe that the natural resources found in the new world are what really made it an age, however the spice trade is what led to the discovery of the new world and its natural resources. On the other hand, even if the spice trade were not what it was, it is certain that explorers would eventually have discovered the new world. The spice trade definitely hastened the discovery of the Americas, but if it had not, there would have been other causes for explorers to try to circumnavigate the world or sail out to sea seeking new lands.