Genoa and spices: brief history of a long-standing love affair

Brief history of spices and their long voyage towards the Mediterranean sea: business, status symbol and mass frenzy on the Ligurian table. 

Spices & more...

The word spices derives from “species”, i.e. goods, commodities.

In his Della vita privata dei genovesi (1875) historian Luigi Tommaso Belgrano wrote about the daily dietary habits of the Genoese in the past, highlighting the role of spices: pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, galanga, mace and cubebe.

In the Genoese carruggi near Via della Maddalena, vico dei Droghieri still witnesses the activity of the grocers’ guild. The nearby area of Sottoripa, set in front of the port, was the hub of trades related to spices, dried fruits, Indian sugar, rare goods from all over the Mediterranean basin, mastic, alum rock, Persian rugs, Chinese silk. From Sottoripa this bounty headed past the Apennines on donkey back towards the Padan plan.

Belgrano confirmed how spices, silk and gold featured among the most coveted trades of the Middle Ages. While aromatic herbs are used fresh, spices – roots, barks, seeds, berries -are frequently processed (mostly dried).

Since antiquity – well before the Roman age – the appeal of spices resided not only in their scenting exoticism, but also in their “miraculous”, precious aura. The Chinese, the Egyptians, the Phoenicians and the Greek all fell under this spell. As for spices- addicted Roman cosmetics, Ovid’s Medicamina faciei provides excellent insight.

Tyre in Lebanon, then Alexandria of Egypt, and later Constantinople were the first capitals of large-scale spice trade. The age of Crusades saw the rise of the Venetian-Genoese rivalry.

The incredible explorations of Vasco da Gama, Columbus and Magalhães/Magellano shifted the axis of import-export. The discovery of the New World quickly revolutionized (though potatoes and tomatoes were exceptions – it took them longer to be… accepted) European menus: corn, pumpkins, zucchini, beans and French beans, bell peppers and chilli peppers, cocoa…

The so-called Company of the Indies finally demonstrated how the strength of National governments overpowered minor city-republics such as Venice and Genoa – which in fact both fell in 1797. 
However, Venice kept on nurturing its penchant for spices (a long-lasting love which began in the Early Middle Ages). 

Hearty (and scenting) spungata from Sarzana
As for Genoa and Liguria, traces of this glorious past are evident in several recipes which feature scenting seasonings and ingredients: anise in anicini biscuits and pandolci, black pepper over chick pea flour farinata and inside salami (e.g. Sant’Olcese), cinnamon in spungata sarzanese, coffee in pànera, the semifreddo (soft gelato) you can enjoy only in Zena (Genoa).

Luisa Puppo

Elaboration of my English abstract of the article by Umberto Curti as published on Liguria Food in March 2018
Luisa Puppo

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