Provencal Spring Menu from the Spice Route
Spicy Spring Menu
This Provencal spring menu showcases the spices and recipes from the trade route. Pepper and curry flavours from India, Spain’s iconic paella, and aromas from North Africa and the Middle East. Enjoy!
Provence and the Spice Route
Food encodes social, political, and economic history, often in fascinating localized ways. We can see it in Provençal cuisine, especially near Marseille, southern France’s largest seaport. An entrepôt at the junction of Northern Europe and the Mediterranean, Marseille had a flourishing Maritime trade since it was a colonial Greek outpost circa 600 BCE.
Spices were a particularly valuable commodity because they were in high demand and travelled vast distances. While saffron, fennel, and anise are Mediterranean natives, coriander is native to Persia, India the source of black pepper, and India to southeast Asia the source of turmeric, cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon. Cloves and nutmeg come from as far as Indonesia. All these had to be hand-harvested and dried. For the European market, they were shipped via coastal routes to ports in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, then overland to Damascus, Aleppo, Cairo, and Alexandria, where Europeans traded for them. Marseillais merchants were always in competition with the larger and more powerful states of Venice and Genoa.
In the fourteenth century, the Ottoman Empire began its expansion from Turkey across the Middle East and North Africa. Thus enabling it to control all the spice routes to Europe and raise prices. This intensified European competition to find alternate sources. Most famous were the Spanish, whose westward venture blundered into the New World, and the Portuguese, who sailed around Africa to India.
France developed diplomatic alliances with Turkey, and in 1535 entered commercial treaties with the Ottomans for direct trade, including the Tunisian coral trade. The Marseillais exchanged their Tunisian coral in Egypt and the Levant for spices, which they then traded northward to Paris, Lyons, Rouen, and Toulouse. Still expensive, the chefs to the wealthy often combined spices in savoury dishes in ways that are no longer familiar in European cookery.
As in a grand soap opera of conflicting interests, once the Portuguese and then the Dutch entered the Indian Ocean. They intercepted the spice trade before it could reach the Ottoman empire, driving up European prices, and enabling themselves to demand the highest prices for what they transported back to Europe. One culinary side effect of this trade was a tendency to turn to local hillsides for native food flavourings – herbes de Provence.
In the following centuries, commercial enterprise and wealth shifted to northern European ports, but other developments were afoot. In the 1830s, France acquired Algeria. This first step in French expansion across northwestern Africa, stimulated a back-and-forth movement of populations, tastes and exotic flavours. After Algerian Independence in 1962, there was a great influx of Algerians to Marseilles, followed by other North Africans, adding to the city’s colourful African market. Today, an Algerian or Moroccan restaurant in Marseilles or a small city like Avignon may seem very modern. However, it is, in fact, a continuation of 2,500 years of interaction with faraway places.
Today Provencal menus reflect international influences and access to products and spices from all over the globe. Traditional cuisine in the South of France remains local, seasonal and relatively uncomplicated. This menu brings the spice trade to your dinner table. Enjoy the tastes of Provence at your next dinner party.
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