Chapter 1: Peppers, Nutmeg, and Cloves

Peppers, nutmeg, and cloves may have been the cause for exploration and expansion during the 15th century. They were also extremely valuable and were mostly enjoyed by the elite aristocrats of Europe. Pepper was found to grow in India in the early 15th century. It gave flavor to certain foods and also functioned as the first food preservative. Because of this, it was highly sought after and caused great conflict with those who wanted to monopolize the now growing spice trade. The chemical aspect of the compound is known as piperine, which is the cause of the spiciness. Eugenol is found in cloves while isoeugenol is found in nutmeg. The sole difference in these two compounds is the position of a double bond. These two substances have been used both as medicinal substances as well as in culinary arts for their scent.

Historical Events:

Pepper is from the vine Piper nigrum, which is found in India. The spice trade was initially started by Arab traders. Europeans found the spice as a good preservative and taste enhancer. People were so intrigued by the spice that they began to explore and compete on finding the most efficient navigational route. The Age of Discovery had begun. The spice trade also built the Venetian economy into a monopoly. But most important of all, without the want and need for spices, Christopher Columbus would never have accidentally found America, or Haiti. The Dutch and the English fought over the Bandanese Islands for control of the nutmeg and clove trees in the 1600s. In 1667, The Treaty of Breda, gave New Amsterdam, now known as New York, to England, and the spices to the Dutch.


The active ingredient of pepper is a compound known as piperine with a chemical formula of C17H19O3N. The shape of the piperine molecule is able to fit into a protein on the pain nerve endings of our mouths and other parts of our bodies, causing a nerve signal to the brain which translates to the spiciness we have come to know and love. Likewise, the active ingredient in ginger is Zigerone C11H14O. Zigerone is the third molecule with similar molecular shape to piperine (the 2nd being capsaicin) that produces the much sought after hot flavor. The reason we have the desire to eat spicy foods is not only to enhance the taste of food but because it causes an increase in saliva production, stimulates the movement of food through bowels during digestion, and endorphins are released in our brain to provide us with a happy feeling.

Cloves and Nutmeg molecules are very similar in shape, but are classified as different compounds. Nutmeg is classified as an isoeugenol compound. Isoeugenol compounds are compounds that plants use as a natural insecticide against predators. Nutmeg in particular was believed to prevent the Black Plague because of its characteristic insecticide, which repelled disease-carrying fleas. In contrast, Cloves are eugenols. As was said earlier, the main difference between the compounds was a differently placed double bond.

Impact on Modern World:

Spices are still used to this day to add flavor to our favorite dishes, although different regions and cultures use the spices in varied quantities. Mexican and Cajun food use pepper and other spices more prominently than other cuisines. Trading is still an important part of our world today. However, spices are not as vital to preserve food, due to the invention of electricity and refrigeration. Pepper is now a common household item that is easily obtained, so the desperation, and urge to control, and fight over the spice is no longer a problem. I think most of the authors’ arguments are well thought out and backed up with evidence. If spices were not so appealing, the spice trade would never have been such a big deal, so people would not have fought and competed over navigational routes to the spice regions. However, The Age of Discovery was caused by much more than just spices. They also were in search of gold, power, and more land. The most convincing point they made though was the fact that Christopher Columbus did indeed find America, when he was searching for a better trade route to India.


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One thought on “Chapter 1: Peppers, Nutmeg, and Cloves

  1. I thought the summarization was spot on. I interpreted and felt exactly the same way when I was reading this chapter.

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