2500 Year Old Breath Freshener
It is a little unusual in that a clove is the unopened bud of the tropical evergreen clove tree. The color ranges from rich red to reddish brown. Cloves are nail shaped and, in fact, the word clove comes from the Latin word clavus which means nail. Cloves are an ancient spice and, because of their exceptional aromatic strength, have always been held in high esteem by cooks in Europe, Northern Africa the greater part of Asia.
The clove tree originated in the North Moluccas (Indonesia) and for hundreds of years was cultivated on the islands of Ternate, Tidore, Bacan and the West coast of Halmahera also in Indonesia. The Dutch extended cultivation to several other islands in the Moluccas, but only after the end of the Dutch monopoly (18th century), were clove trees introduced to other countries.
Trade between the “Clove Island” Ternate and China goes back at least 2500 years. In China, cloves were not only used for cooking but also for deodorization; anyone having an audience with the emperor had to chew cloves to prevent any undesired smell. Arab traders brought cloves to Europe in the time of the Romans and they were very expensive.
The most important production area today is the island of Pemba, which together with Zanzibar forms one part of the state of Tanzania. The whole island of Pemba is covered with clove gardens, and it is said that the island can be smelled by any ship approaching it. The short-lived Sultanate of Zanzibar and Pemba (1963–1964) had a flag showing two clove buds. Cloves are also grown on other East African islands, most notably, Madagascar.
In Indonesia, clove production has recovered from poor production in the decades after World War II. Production was so bad that the country was forced to import cloves to satisfy the huge domestic market. Since the 1980s, Indonesia is again producing in large scale, although little of the Indonesian crop gets exported. It is amazing that cloves are very rarely used in the cuisine of the Moluccas and then only for sweets. In all of Indonesia, they are not an important culinary spice. Nonetheless, Indonesians are the main consumers of cloves and use up nearly 50% of the world’s production; but, sadly not for cooking but for smoking: Cigarettes flavored with cloves (kretek) are extremely popular and nearly every (male) Indonesian enjoys them. Their sweet, incense-like aroma pervades Indonesian restaurants, buses, markets and offices.
Cloves contain a large amount of essential oil which is often used in medicine. The fruit, called mother of clove, is used culinarily, but is rarely found outside the local growing area.
If you are out of cloves you may substitute cinnamon.