Cheap Eats:
Mulled Wine

How far would you go to prove a point? For Ferdinand Magellan, the answer to that question was “all the way around the world,” and the point he was trying to prove is when east becomes west.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI had set a Line of Demarcation one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. The line stretched from the Arctic pole to the Antarctic pole, cutting through Greenland and separating Brazil from the rest of South America. According to the pope’s decree, everything to the west of that line belonged to Spain, while everything to the east belonged to Portugal—European countries excluded, of course. This seemed like a good way to make peace between the long-time rival countries. It gave Africa and India to Portugal, plus a bit of land in the New World, and Spain got the rest of the New World.

Well, that worked until Portuguese sailors ventured beyond India, making it all the way to Indonesia and the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. Sure, India had ginger, black pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon, but the Spice Islands had nutmeg and cloves, and no one else did. This meant that Portugal now had a lock on the spice trade. It was not long before the question was raised in Spain of just how far east Portugal could go before it was straying into Spain’s territory. Surely, the Line of Demarcation separating the two country’s claims must continue on the far side of the globe. Maybe Spain could claim the Moluccas.

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese navigator, trader, and soldier of considerable skill and experience, had done an immense amount of service for the King of Portugal. After being wounded in a battle that he had been sent to in lieu of a response to an earlier request, Magellan asked for a small raise, to compensate for the limitations created by his injury. The King of Portugal told him he should find work elsewhere.

Magellan wanted get even with the King of Portugal, and the best place to do that was Spain. He explained that he could prove that the Moluccas were too far east to still be considered Portuguese, and the King of Spain was only too happy to outfit him with ships and provisions.

Magellan survived storms, mutiny (Spanish sailors weren’t crazy about having a Portuguese captain), hardship, and hunger. He discovered the straits that were later named for him and successfully navigated the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, he didn’t survive the Philippines, where, though the first people he met were eager to associate with the newcomers, a tribe he met later was not so eager to befriend strangers. Because Magellan had both conceived the idea of the trip and successfully navigated all the parts of it that no European had ever seen before, the circling of the globe was attributed to him, even though the rest of the circumnavigation was done without him. The handful of men aboard the one ship that made it back to Spain were handsomely rewarded, however, even though the feat did not break Portugal’s hold on the Moluccas.

Cloves are the unopened flower buds of a tree in the myrtle family. Cloves are so fragrant that it is said that ships’ crews can smell them as they approach the islands where they grow. The English name comes from the French clou, which means “nail,” referring to the appearance of a whole, dried clove.

Because they came from even farther away than India, from a place with no land routes to the world’s markets, cloves reached Europe rather later than other spices. They made their first appearance in the West in 335 A.D. (though they had been known in China for at least 500 years at this point.) They were presented to the Emperor Constantine by Arab traders specializing in delicacies from Asia. However, where cloves came from remained a mystery, and when the Roman Empire collapsed, cloves disappeared from Europe for nearly a thousand years. When Saracens began to invade Europe and Europeans started to fight Saracens, cloves resurfaced. By 1228, cloves were listed among dutiable imports in both Marseilles and Barcelona, so they had clearly made a comeback. But Europeans still did not know where the Arab traders were getting their cloves.

That changed in 1511, when a sailor serving under Magellan (who was still sailing for the Portuguese at this point) noticed them growing on one of the small, northern islands of the Moluccas. Portugal wanted to keep this discovery a secret and published false maps of the region. While Magellan did not succeed in ending Portuguese trade, the Dutch did. When they showed up in 1605, they got rid of the Portuguese and even destroyed most of the clove trees, sparing only those on a couple of easily defended islands.

A Frenchman named Pierre Poivre finally succeeded in wresting a few trees from the Moluccas and transplanting them elsewhere. But while he had evaded the Dutch, he could not stay ahead of the politics of Louis XV’s court. His opponents, wanting him to fail at what would be a massively lucrative operation should it succeed, sabotaged Poivre’s trees. Only one survived, but that one tree was to give rise to virtually all the commercially grown clove trees in the world today. Zanzibar and Mozambique now rule the clove trade, though cloves also grow in Brazil and Sri Lanka. (Sadly, the Moluccas faded from the scene, as few trees survived Dutch occupation.) Cloves remain a costly commodity, because they are so labor intensive. Every bud has to be picked by hand at precisely the right moment, and every tree has to be gone over day after day, as buds emerge. But they are intensely fragrant and flavorful, so they go a long way.

Cloves can appear in either sweet or savory dishes. They have long been favorite elements of spiced or mulled wines and ciders. (And as an FYI, the origin of “mull” in this context is unknown, but it simply means sweetened, spiced, and heated.) Mulled wine is a warming treat of a winter night. Enjoy.

Mulled Wine

10 whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick

1 pinch freshly ground nutmeg

peel and juice of one lemon

peel and juice of one orange

2 Tbs. dark brown sugar

1 cup water

1 750ml bottle red wine

Put spices, lemon peel, orange peel, brown sugar, and water in a 2 quart sauce pan and bring to the boil. Reduce heat slightly and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the lemon and orange juice, then stir in the wine. Heat gently—you do not want the wine to boil. Ladle into cups or heat-proof glasses. (The kind of fancy glassware you’d use for Irish coffee would work well here.)

Serves 6-8.

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