The Taste of Conquest

    First Taste–St. Albans







Over the centuries, people across the globe made piles of money from the European desire for pepper, cinnamon, and cloves. Merchants from Malacca to Marseilles built fabulous fortunes in the spice business. Monarchs in Cairo and Calicut financed their armies from their cut of the pepper trade. London, Antwerp, Genoa, Constantinople, Mecca, Jakarta, and even Quanzhou could attribute at least some of their wealth to the passage of the spice-scented ships. But nowhere were the Asian condiments the lifeblood of prosperity as in the great entrepôts of Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam. Each took her turn as one of the world’s great cities, ruling over an empire of spice. Venice prospered longest, until Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India rechanneled the flow of Asian seasoning. Then Lisbon had her hundred years of wealth and glory. Finally, Amsterdam seized the perfumed prize and ruthlessly controlled the spice trade in the century historians call the city’s golden age.

        There are probably as many similarities among the three cities as there are differences. All of them ran (or at least dominated) small, under-resourced countries, and so they didn’t have much choice but to go abroad to make good. Kings and emperors sitting on fat, tax-stuffed purses never had the same kind of appetite for the risky spice business. The great harbors were renowned for their sailors and shipbuilders (and, not coincidentally, their prostitutes). Nevertheless, they prospered in different times and in different ways. Venice was, in some ways, like a medieval Singapore, a merchant republic where business was the state ideology and the government’s main job was to keep the wheels of commerce primed and tuned. Pepper was the lubricant of trade. Lisbon, on the other hand, lived and breathed on the whim of the king, who had one eye on the spice trade even as the other looked for heavenly salvation. In the fifteenth century, Portugal had the good fortune to have a run of enlightened, even inspired monarchs who figured out a way to cut out the Arab middlemen by sailing right around Africa. Whether this pleased God is an open question, but it certainly gratified the pocketbook. The Dutch were much more down-to-earth. In Amsterdam, they handed the spice trade over to a corporation, which turned out to be a much more efficient and ruthless way to run a business than Lisbon’s feudal approach. Decisions made at the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company would transform people’s lives halfway across the globe. By the time the Hollanders were done, the world was a very different place from the one Sir John Mandeville wrote about in his Travels.

        In the meantime, the role of spices in European culture gradually shifted, from the talismans of the mysterious East carried on Venetian galleys, to exotic treasure packed in enormous carracks emblazoned with the Crusaders’ cross, and finally to a profitable but rather mundane commodity poured like coal into the holds of Dutch East Indiamen. All this as Europe was transformed from a continent joined (if intermittently) in its battle against Islam, united in its religion, and with an educated class conversant in the same language to a battleground of nation-states, divided by creed and vernacular. People still used plenty of pepper and ginger in post-Reformation Europe, but that’s mostly because they had become relatively cheap. The trendsetters had grown tired of spices, though, and the cuisine favored by generations of Medici, Bourbons, Hapsburgs, and Tudors was about to fundamentally change.

        It was just around the time when the road to European world domination opened for business that Europeans’ tastes began to come home. Crusades and pilgrimages went out of fashion. And the orgy ended. Certainly not overnight and not everywhere, but in the fashion centers of Madrid and Versailles, spices no longer made the man. The vogue that had built Venice from a ramshackle fishing village on stilts into Europe’s greatest metropolis, the transient tastes of a few cognoscenti that had transformed Lisbon from a remote outcrop at the edge of Christendom into the splendid capital of a world-spanning empire, the culinary habits of a minute fragment of this small continent’s population that had lifted Amsterdam out of its surrounding bog and briefly made teeny Holland one of the great powers of the world—all this was over. Fashion had moved on.



Just what the food in the Middle Ages and Renaissance tasted like is impossible to say. The old cookbooks are too imprecise, the technology is hard to replicate, and the ingredients are utterly different. Animals, fruits, and vegetables were all smaller. Even the spices were different. The spices we have today have undergone centuries of selective breeding to concentrate and standardize their flavor, whereas most of the aromatics of 1400 were still gathered in the wild from bushes and trees. Then there is the issue of freshness and storage. When you consider that cloves, nutmeg, and mace might have been in transit for an absolute minimum of a year, and all the spices were often stored for years at a time under often dubious conditions, you have to wonder just how potent they were.  Under ideal storage conditions, pepper holds up extremely well, but the others have nothing like pepper’s shelf life. No doubt, many of the spices that reached such European backwaters as England and Scandinavia were about as fresh as the jar of allspice that has sat in my spice cupboard for the last six years.

        But just because it’s impossible to replicate the cuisine of the past hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. I am particularly intrigued by the efforts of Sergio Fragiacomo in Venice to try to turn gastronomic time travel into a business model. Sergio owns a restaurant, some five minutes’ walk away from Piazza San Marco, called, somewhat incongruously in French, Bistrot de Venise. Sergio comes across more like a genial professor than a restaurateur, and like so many Venetians, he is an amateur (in the old sense of the word) of the subject of Venice. He has the old lover’s devotion to the city, enamored as much of her foibles as her charms. “I want to have a conversation with her past,” he tells me. His obsession is to bring the old tastes alive, to introduce the tourists not merely to mortar and marble but to the very flavors of the ancient republic. But he also has to make a living, so he offers two menus, one of traditional Venetian food—grilled fish, polenta, risotto, and such—and another inspired by old Venetian sources. “The other restaurateurs think I’m crazy,” he tells me as we sip a distinctly twenty-first-century cocktail of Prosecco and pomegranate juice. “There is no sense of the history of our culinary culture in today’s Venice,” he says. “It’s so stupid!”

       The mostly French and English tourists (“The Italian public think

with their stomachs,” he grumbles) who order from the historical menu

can sample dishes that date back to the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. That the flavors can never be entirely authentic goes without saying. At best, this is culinary tourism; however, in a sense, Sergio’s recreations are no less representative of the past than the medieval palazzi that have been ripped apart and reassembled to install indoor plumbing and fiber-optic lines. In the same way that the sensitively modernized mansions remind us of a glorious past, the attractively arranged plates give us hints of ginger, turmeric, and pepper, sufficient to recall the spice-laden galleys but sparing us too much authenticity. I suppose I am just as pleased to do without the medieval city’s stinking canals, drafty rooms, and omnipresent fleas, even if I long for a little more spice.

        Dinner proceeds in small, delicate courses, beginning with a fennel soup gently scented with cinnamon. We then move on to “ravioli,” more like super-delicate gnocchi in this case, with an admixture of sweet spices and herbs resting atop a yellow ocher reduction thickened with rice flour and turmeric—all this inspired by an anonymous fourteenth-century recipe compilation known as the Anonimo Veneziano. Next, a dish of sea bass arrives. The sweet fish is topped with an almond crust arranged atop a little ginger-infused puddle, the sauce with that slightly bitter, even chalky flavor that reminds you that ginger is dug out from the earth. The menu pointedly reassures the diner that although the ingredients are strictly traceable to the great Renaissance chef Maestro Martino, the recipe has been adapted to modern taste. Sergio insists I finish with fritelle da imperador magnifici, two small fritters of ricotta and pine nuts, gently crunchy on the outside, creamy inside, resting like two little pillows on a coverlet of sauce com-posed of vin cotto, honey, cinna-mon, and cloves. The fritters (though not the sauce) are also cribbed from the Anonimo Veneziano. The original fourteenth-century recipe calls for a mixture of egg whites, fresh cheese (that is, ricotta), flour, and pine nuts. Once fried, they are sprinkled with sugar—lots of sugar to make them worthy of an emperor, the "imperador" of the name. I’ll forgive Sergio the sauce, because it happens to be delicious and I can’t resist his quiet enthusiasm. He’s probably right—authenticity has its limits.




Vasco da Gama set sail from the Lisbon suburb of Restelo on July 8, 1497, with a small flotilla of two naus, the São Gabriel and São Rafael, and a caravel, the Bérrio, dispatched by the king, according to an anonymous chronicler of the voyage, “to make discoveries and go in search of spices.” King João II was fated never to see those sails emblazoned with the Crusaders’ cross swell with the Atlantic wind. He had died two years earlier, at the age of forty. The day he had been planning for all his life was witnessed by his cousin and brother-in-law, Manuel I. Apparently, João didn’t think much of his wife’s brother (he made an aborted attempt to have his illegitimate son declared heir), which may explain, at least in part, why King Manuel worked so hard to outstrip his predecessor’s legacy. It must have rankled him that they dubbed him “the Fortunate” while João had been called “the Perfect Prince.”

        We know quite a lot about Vasco da Gama’s fortunate royal patron, but the young explorer is a bit of a cipher. According to records, da Gama was only twenty-eight when he commanded that first mission to India. He was a middle son of middling aristocracy from the southern seaport town of Sines. While most definitely not a professional seaman, he seems to have had some experience serving in coastal missions under João’s ad- ministration. In later years, he had a reputation for being temperamental and capricious. However, on this first journey, the young captain-general comes across as so cautious as to verge on paranoia—at least when dealing with the locals in the Indian Ocean.

        Da Gama’s ships carried provisions for three years, guns and gunners, interpreters, musicians and priests, and a few convicts (death-row inmates who had their sentences commuted to naval service) for some of the riskier tasks. The commander also carried a royal letter addressed to Prester John. Oddly, given its ostensible mission, the armada was surprisingly devoid of trade goods. The ships set course straight across the Atlantic, then back down to the Cape of Good Hope, and up to the city of Malindi, about halfway up Africa’s eastern coast in what is today’s Kenya.

        By the time they reached Malindi on the eve of Easter 1498, more than nine months after setting sail, da Gama’s sailors had been suffering weeks of dehydration and dying of scurvy left and right. Several close calls with none-too-friendly natives along the East African coast had convinced them that no one could be trusted, so even in Malindi, where their reception was cordial, the Lusitanian adventurers kept a wary distance. Here, they took on fresh food and water, and equally important, they hired a Gujarati pilot to guide them across the Indian Ocean to Calicut. The pilot, though Muslim, supposedly even spoke some Italian! The rest of the trip was thankfully uneventful. The fleet reached Calicut in a mere twenty-six days on May 18, 1498, arriving just in time to be drenched by the southern Indian monsoon.

        What came next was more farce than high drama. After his close shaves along the African coast, da Gama had no intention of putting himself at risk. That’s what the on-board convicts were for. So the first Portuguese conquistadores sent out to meet the legendary Indians were a couple of jailbirds. When they finally tracked down someone they could talk to, they also turned out to be foreigners—mainly, two Tunisians who just happened to speak Castilian and Genoese. Not surprisingly, the Arabs were none too pleased to see these all-too-familiar infidels. “May the Devil take you! What brought you here?” was their unsubtle greeting. To which the cons offered the oft-quoted reply“ We come in search of Christians and of spices.” That first Calicut visit was not terribly successful on either a count. Later visits would prove much more lucrative—at least, when it came to the spices.

        The following weeks saw the Portuguese slogging back and forth through the rain-soaked streets between the harbor and the royal palace.

During their first visit, they could barely move because of the thick crowds who had come to gawk at this novel species of foreigner. Early on, the local ruler, the zamorin, had been quite favorably inclined toward the newcomers. He even granted da Gama a long interview, in which the potentate punctuated his sentences by expelling great gobs of betel juice and saliva into a royal-sized golden spittoon. But subsequently, the zamorin thought better of it and had the Europeans detained. Then he changed his mind and released them, and then once more locked them up. Da Gama spent several intermittent weeks fuming under house arrest, at a loss to figure out what was going on. He had arrived with the firm belief that the zamorin was a Christian, and now he wasn’t going to let mere facts get in the way. The Portuguese were so convinced they had found their longed-for coreligionists that they took the Hindu temples for churches. These “churches,” according to the chronicler, were decorated with “saints” wearing crowns and “painted variously, with teeth protruding an inch from the mouth, and four or five arms.” Naturally, the only explanation for the zamorin’s behavior could be that it was caused by his malevolent courtiers, the perfidious Moors.

        You need not be a religious bigot to understand why the Muslim traders ensconced in Calicut wanted to get rid of the Europeans. Still, the conquistadores didn’t make it any easier for themselves. While it’s hardly surprising that courses in comparative religion would not be part of an aspiring fidalgo’s curriculum, it also seems that neither were the ABCs of business etiquette. The zamorin’s commercial representatives reportedly burst into peals of laughter when they saw the presents the Europeans had brought for their master. “The poorest merchant from Mecca, or any other part of India would give more,” they sniggered. (The Portuguese chronicle of the voyage itemizes twelve pieces of cotton cloth, four scarlet hoods, six hats, four strings of coral, six washbasins, a case of sugar, two casks of oil, and two of honey as the sum total of the gifts for a ruler who used gold even for his cuspidor.) The Hindu potentate was not amused.

        In the end, though, the two sides reached a compromise, no doubt aided by the fact that the Portuguese grabbed a few hostages of their own. So for the last few weeks, da Gama could supervise the trading operation from the safety of his own cabin. His men took advantage of this time to rummage through their chests to find anything and everything that they could hock in the Calicut spice market. The sailors went so far as to literally sell the shirts off their backs in order to buy pepper and cloves. The sweaty linen tops were apparently worth a lot less money here than back home, but then spices were even cheaper. The captain-general got to hold on to his clothes, but he did part with his personal supply of silver cups and other tableware,which he traded in for a hefty cargo of spices and precious stones.

        All in all, this first European expedition to Asia didn’t make much of an impression on the locals. Just to make sure the foreigners would be less confused in the future, the zamorin sent them off with a letter spelling out just what he wanted to see next time they arrived: “My country is rich in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper and precious stones. That which I ask of you in exchange is gold, silver, corals and scarlet cloth.” Future visitors, including da Gama himself, got the message. In the interim, though, the Portuguese had to survive the return voyage home. Not many did. When da Gama’s ships finally limped back to the quiet waters of the Tejo in the summer of 1499, they were down to 55 men of the original crew of perhaps 170. Just how much spice they brought home is impossible to say, since most of it was in the hands of the officers and crew. There must have been at least several thousand pounds’ worth of pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg on board—enough, at any rate, that the king awarded da Gama a bonus of more than a ton of spices while the surviving sailors received a couple of hundred pounds each. Still, it’s unlikely the crown made a profit on this particular voyage. But at least King Manuel now had plenty of firsthand intelligence. He knew that a hundred-pound bag of pepper selling for sixteen ducats in Venice could be had for two in Calicut, and what was perhaps even more important to the heir of the Crusader kings, he also had eyewitnesses (however deluded) who swore that India was crawling with Christians.




In Amsterdam, the naval museum has at least as many models of the old

ships that traveled the spice route round the Cape of Good Hope as Lisbon’s fine collection of miniature galleons and naus, but at least in one respect, the Amsterdamers can lord it over the Lisboetas: they have a lifesize reproduction of an East Indiaman (see left). The ship, appropriately enough named the Amsterdam, lies at anchor by the waterfront, several canals east of the Centraal Station, just about where the seventeenth-century VOC shipyards used to be. Naval historians will scoff that it’s a copy, and of an eighteenth-century ship at that, but that would make it only a little more luxurious than earlier models. This is decidedly no cruise ship. The quarters assigned to merchants like Coen wouldn’t pass muster as a walk-in closet, and the ship’s galley would only qualify as such in a New York studio apartment. The downstairs deck is about half the size of a basketball court, which seems spacious enough until you realize it had to accommodate more than three hundred rowdy and bored sailors.

        The men who boarded ships like the one carrying Jan Coen to the East Indies in 1607 would have been a motley and unruly bunch. But at least they were free men—unlike the slaves and convicts who populated the Carreira da Índia’s later crews. The Dutch seamen were assembled by professional recruiters—known as zielverkopers, or “soul merchants”—who trolled the taverns and back alleys of Holland’s slums. One favorite ploy was to advance wages to the impecunious recruits, who typically drank the money at the nearest bar. Now they were not only broke but in debt. They had no choice but to go east. Some never got out of arrears to the Company and remained free men in name only. Later, when the alehouses proved inadequate, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) regularly turned to the governors of orphanages and workhouses to supply additional souls to man the Company’s ships. Like the Portuguese, Dutch sailors died by the hundreds from accidents, violence, and disease, with the result that the soul merchants were never out of work.

        The discipline aboard Dutch ships was perhaps even more brutal than on other European merchant ships of the time. Maybe people were

more hardened after the atrocities of the Spanish war, or perhaps commanders were just desperate to keep their brawling, drunken, malnourished, and often sick crew from murdering one another. The official rule books allowed captains to punish any seaman who injured another by pinning him to the mast with a knife through his hand until he tore himself free. Anyone who killed another was to be bound to the dead victim and thrown overboard. You have to wonder, though, just how often a skipper would resort to punishments that would leave him with even fewer sailors to run the ship.

        Yet, in spite of the crowded conditions, the population of a ship like the Amsterdam was far smaller than that of the virtual floating cities that set out from Lisbon. For one thing, the early Dutch vessels carried neither settlers, priests, nor colonial functionaries with their attendant slaves and servants. From the standpoint of quantity, the average sailor was probably better fed than his Portuguese counterpart, at least once the Dutch had figured out what would make it through the equatorial heat. (In the first voyage to the Indies and back, half the crew died.) The officers did have the occasional culinary perk, but they were hardly living it up like the Carreira da Índia’s elite. If the Am-sterdam’s kitchen (see right) is in any way representative, all the cook had to work with to serve some 333 bodies was a modest grill and a built-in cooking basin just big enough to submerge one big turkey. (Take a virtual tour of an even more primitive kitchen on seventeenth-century Dutch East Indiaman Batavia.) Any sort of baking was out of the question, so scheepsbeschuit, or hardtack, (the tough, crackerlike bread universal to all sailing nations) was the only bread for officers and crew alike after the first few days out. (To make it palatable, it was often soaked with beer and sweetened with treacle.)

        Food preservation methods were just as limited as they had been in Vasco da Gama’s day. Moreover, to the great consternation of the Dutch crew, beer would not last more than a month or two in the tropical heat. The men were stuck with fetid water washed down with a little wine, which held up better. And not even enough water at that. Shipboard diaries report that sailors had to subsist on something like a quart of water a day, a minuscule quantity when you consider the sweaty work, salty food, and sultry climate. In the first few weeks, they occasionally got to taste a little fresh meat to relieve the monotony. Official VOC provisioning lists allow for several live pigs on board as well as several dozen hens to provide fresh eggs for the sick. But the shelf life of the livestock on board wasn’t much better than the beer. Once the fresh meat had been consumed, the crew was stuck with a diet of boiled salted beef, boiled salty bacon, boiled gruel, and boiled peas. The officers did have it a little better, at least in one intriguing respect. Whereas the only seasoning included on an official VOC provisioning list for the sailors was mustard and horseradish, the officers had a substantial allowance of both domestic and Asian spices to season their gruel—something on the order of three ounces a week.(Admittedly, more than half of the spice consumed was domestically produced aniseed and cumin [the officers’ mess even offered cumin cheese], but the rest—about a pound of pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and mace for each officer for the duration of the trip— were exotic imports.) This may be the best indication yet of just how much spice middle-class Netherlanders really ate around 1700.

        One source of Dutch protein that was denied to Portuguese seamen on the pepper naus was, of course, cheese. The weekly three-quarters of a pound of cheese each India-bound sailor received may alone explain why the Hollanders were considerably taller than the Portuguese and better fed than their competitors. Still, by the time they rounded the cape, the ships’ supply of fuel—most likely, dried peat or German coal on the outbound voyage—would often have run out, so, unable to cook, the dehydrated sailors were stuck with little more than worm-infested biscuit to gnaw with their Gouda.

        Is it any wonder that the half-starved, alcohol-deprived sailors disembarking at Cochin headed straight for the public houses, where they drank themselves insensate? As the partying ordinances in Hoorn make clear, Calvinist society did not condone indulgent behavior—or at least, not too much of it. Admittedly, even back home, Dutch sailors were notorious for their drinking, fighting, and whoring, but in India, half a  world away from nosy neighbors and purse-lipped ministers, the seamen could indulge in every vice without a look back. (Though, if the small number of mixed-race offspring produced by the Dutch in the Far East is any indication, their consummate skill with the tankard may have made them less successful in other indulgences—at least, when compared to the Portuguese.) Knowing full well what fueled a Dutch sailor, Linschoten had reassured his readers that a distilled liquor called arrack existed in plenty in the Indies; he particularly recommends the arrack from Malaysia. In India and Indonesia, arrack was made by distilling the fermented nectar of the palmyra palm (though fermented sugarcane and rice were also used), resulting in a relatively neutral-tasting white firewater. A Portuguese visitor to India in 1587 commented that that “araca” is very strong but improves with age, and that raisins were thrown into it to take off its roughness and sweeten it. A commercial version of this same liquor is sold today in little corner shops all over Goa, where it is called feni. Goans usually drink it straight, though, for the tourists, they mix it with lime soda. There is also a homemade version, which regularly kills people.

        The arrack naturally led to every indiscretion you could think of, and not by common sailors alone. At the Dutch “factory” in Jakarta, the senior Company official made no friends by repeatedly sexually harassing the wives of high-ranking Javanese. This was apparently not an isolated incident. An anonymous journal from a few years later reads like a kinky novel. According to our reporter, the entire senior staff of the same fort behaved in a most un-Calvinist way, with the dominie (pastor) jumping right in. It apparently all began with Spanish wine (rather than the local tipple) when four Indonesian/Portuguese mulatas were invited to the officers’ mess to partake of the evening meal. But more was to come:


    After the sub-merchants and assistants had left, Raey, the Captain,
    Dominie Hermans, the Lieutenant, and the Cornet [another

    officer] remained with the women. They were gay and happy

    and drank Spanish wine and dallied with those women, singing:

    Tabe, tabe, Signora moeda—bawa bantal tikar—betta mau rassa!   
    [Greetings, young signora—do bring your sleeping mat and pillow!]

    What the Dominie had preached during the day was already

    forgotten all were too busy with those luscious women. . . The

    pleasures lasted until one or two in the morning when everyone

    went to his bunk and three women slept upstairs...The Cornet

    took [one of the women] home and had his fun with her in her



No wonder Jan Coen ( see portrait left) would later harangue the Heren XVII to send a number of “solid Protestant clergymen, not such stupid, uncouth idiots as you have sent heretofore.” All the same, this rowdy, unruly atmosphere dominated the Dutch trading posts throughout most of the early years of the VOC. “It is human beings Your Honors have here, not angels!” Coen repeatedly pointed out to his superiors.


And this is just the beginning I’m sure!


  •  p. 32, 100, 101, 189, 190, the Venetian cookies mentioned are correctly spelled pevarini (not peverini)
  •  footnote p. 117 should read 1520 (instead of 1620)
  •  p. 179,  should read "a Portuguese king once again occupied the Paço da Ribeira in 1640" (instead of 1540.)
  •  p. 256 should read “Even as Europe’s population surged in the eighteenth century, the hunger for pepper crashed into a rock-solid ceiling.” not the eighteen hundreds.