This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
Spices have been highly esteemed from remote antiquity, and were in very early times a principal article of merchandise; so important was this commerce reckoned for our cold climate that in primitive English history the Spicery was a special department of the Court, and had its proper officers. Spices were necessarily rare, and costly, in the fourteenth century, because having to be imported from the Levant. Among the recorded ingredients of old recipes we find Cinnamon (or Canella), Mace (Macys), Cloves (Clowe), Galyngal, Ginger, Cubebs, Grains of Paradise, Nutmegs, Caraway, and Spykenard de Spagne. Such Spices were in patriarchal days presents acceptable even unto a Monarch; thus we read in the Old Testament, "Neither was there any such Spice as the Queen of Sheba gave King Solomon." In the middle ages of social England everything was spiced to death. The mediaeval dinner consisted of only three courses, as against our seven or eight at the present time; but it is quite safe to say far more was eaten then than is partaken of now, the motto being of old, "Quantity rather than quality".
As Traill writes, "The quantity was great, and the quality strong." Our modern housewives would be appalled at the outlay of the earlier English times on these items (Spices) of the store-cupboard. A bill for Ginger, Cloves, Mace, Cinnamon, Almonds, Nutmeg, Aniseed, Galingale, Long Pepper, Saffron, and Comfits, amounting to twenty-six pounds odd for the year would be rather startling nowadays, but this was deemed as essential then as the greengrocer's bill is to-day. We learn that even at present those persons who inhabit countries between twenty-three degrees north, and twenty-three degrees south of the equator employ numerous Spices daily with their foods, just as we make use of pepper; and a certain beneficial effect (stimulating, and carminative) is caused on the digestion thereby; likewise another secondary effect ensues, which is still more salutary, because of the fact that the volatile aromatic oils pass out of the body, mostly unchanged, through its various outlets, chiefly by the lungs, and skin.
By this means nature has provided in the tropics antiseptics which, whilst escaping from the body by exhalations, destroy the hurtful microbes which are of necessity encountered in connection with mosquitoes, and other insects; these detest the volatile oils, and will not attack persons who take such Spices with their food. All condiments, with common table salt at their head, have a strongly preservative action, thereby neutralizing putrescent changes within the stomach, and bowels, on foods otherwise liable to quick decomposition.
Allspice (Pimento) is so named because it is thought to combine the flavours of Cinnamon, Nutmegs, and Cloves. It is the fruit of Eugenia Pimenta from the West Indies, which bears berries, violet when ripe, juicy, sweet, and highly perfumed, but very hot to the taste; they are eaten in great quantities by wood pigeons, thrushes, blackbirds, etc., which thereby acquire an exquisite flavour, and become very fat. For preparing Allspice condiment these berries are dried in the sun; whereto is very appropriate the old proverb (of a double application), "If you crush Spice it becomes all the sweeter." For the relief of spasms, or internal colic, put a quarter of a pound of mixed Cloves, and Allspice, with some crushed Ginger, and Cinnamon, in a quart of the best brandy, and let this stand (bottled) in the sun, or by the hob for a few days until all the virtue is drawn out of the Spices. Then give as a dose one teaspoonful for an adult, (or ten drops for a young child,) in a small wine-glassful of water; also, if some of this be dropped on hot flannel, and applied externally, it will be found very effectual.
For relieving local neuralgia a capital plaster may be made from Allspice berries, by crushing them, and boiling them gently down in quite a little water to a thick liquid extract, which can be spread on linen, and applied over the part in pain. Special virtues reside in the rind of the berries, through their combined savour of several stimulating spices. The berries themselves are somewhat sedative; because of their sweet savour, and cordial taste they are put into curry powder. Allspice tea, made by pouring boiling water on the crushed berries, through virtue of the volatile oil, exercises a sedative effect when flatulent indigestion is oppressive.
Recently the taking of Ginger, in the form of an essence, or strong tincture, is becoming revealed as a growing habit of inebriety both in this country and in America. Seeing that the alcoholic strength of such an essence, or tincture, is about double that of whisky, or brandy, the deleterious results of any excessive indulgence therein may be readily imagined. Many of the London chemists admit that they have regular customers for this pungent cordial, who buy it in comparatively large quantities every week. The Gingerists are persons with depraved stomachs, and over-wrought brains. But the issue of so baneful a practice is lamentably futile. After some relief to begin with, a completely disorded digestion, and a prostrate brain, are the inevitable consequences.
Though not usually ranking as a Spice, yet the Olive, as pickled in salt, and served with dessert for giving a relish to the wine, may fairly be considered a digestive condiment. The Spanish Olive is larger than that of Italy, or France, and is more esteemed. The Greeks appreciated Olives highly, insomuch that the Athenians called this fruit the gift of Pallas Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom. Likewise the Romans set great value on Olives; (and their abundant oil,) such as are now imported into England, bottled when green, and unripe, and before the oil has become at all fully produced; the ripe fruit is of a dark colour, and forms a capital addition to the bread eaten by husbandmen in the Holy Land. Olive Oil was almost as important as honey in ancient cookery. The tree which produces it will live for a thousand years, bearing fruit all the time; one such tree, with gnarled trunk, twisted, and contorted into a most venerable appearance, growing near Mentone, is said to have been planted by Julius Caesar. Spanish Olives are imported in small barrels. The Oil (see "Oils") is an essential ingredient for salads, and admirable for cooking purposes. In Portugal they refuse to gather the Olives till just.beginning to turn purple, when they are bitter, and less digestible.
French Olives are tasteless for cooking uses, though piquant of themselves when gathered young, and small. Spanish Olives, being soft, pulpy, free from sugar, and rich in vegetable oil, are good for diabetic persons. This oil is used in some parts of Europe for preventing the poisonous effects of vipers' bites, both locally, and internally. The ancient treatment of scorpions' stings was to anoint the wounds with the oil got from these creatures, as extracted by frying. A teaspoonful of Olive Oil is sufficient for an infant as an easy laxative.