Spice
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Basic Information

A spice is a plant product used to flavour and/or colour food - and sometimes as a preservative. The category does not normally include non-biological seasonings such as salt and, whilst it is not beyond the bounds of possibility for an animal product to be used as a spice, there are no recorded examples1. The boundary between a spice and a herb can be fuzzy, but for culinary purposes, if it's a leafy bit, it's a herb - anything else, like roots, stems, fruit and seeds tends to be a spice. Spices are generally dried for convenience, but most can also be used fresh. Chocolate probably qualifies as a spice, but is not generally considered to be one. An intense flavour is generally to be expected of a spice, allowing a comparatively small amount to season a large volume of blander food.

In addition to their food uses, many spices have (and some continue) to be used in various forms of traditional medicine, both Asian styles such as Vedic Medicine and Chinese Herbalism and in Western Humoural Medicine where the 'hot' flavours of many spices were seen as a useful tool in balancing the humours. This might also make them useful in spyragic or other forms of alchemy. Modern ethnobotany continues to explore the anti-microbial properties of some spices, as well as other applications and the heating effect of capsaicins are known to provide considerable relief from the symptoms of the common cold and similar viruses2. In some cases they were also thought to be able to ward off "bad airs" that might cause disease. Spices were also used in embalming and for various other religious and spiritual purposes - sometimes due to psychoactive properties of the spice in question.

All of the above tended to make spices a major trade good and form of treasure in previous eras - and a small fortune in spices could be packed into a fairly portable form.

Sources

Bibliography
1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Unusual spices can make for useful background colour for your campaign.
    • Harnworld has an interesting version of this in the spices used by their "orcs" to make their trademark sausages.
  • As noted above - as treasure.
  • PCs might find themselves scouting for new trade routes or sources for spices, or otherwise comissioned to take control of a spice trade. The book Nathaniel's Nutmeg recounts the conflict between England and Holland (and sundry other nations) over the "Spice Islands" of South East Asia (mostly the Molucca Archipelago).
  • These were pretty damned expensive in Europe during the middle ages and were, if anything, overused on occasions as a status symbol - PCs might find themselves fed an unexpected death-chilli by a social-climbing host.
    • Likewise, a PC might find himself on a mission to track down a specific, rare spice for a banquet. Or, indeed for medical use.
  • Spices could also be used to cover up the taste of spoiled meat or ingested poisons - a paranoid (even a properly paranoid) character might evince a preference for bland foods as a result. Likewise, even into present day campaigns, a hot curry might be a precursor to sitting the next mission out in a lavatory.
    • Thus, cooking skills might be useful to an assasin.
  • Spices are a useful adjunct with which travellers can make their iron rations edible.
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