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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, whilst medieval Europe was prone to treat sugar as one as well. An intense flavour is generally to be expected of a spice, allowing a comparatively small amount to season a large volume of blander food.

Many cultures will develop a standard or signature blend of spices that is widely used in their cookery and can be used as a sort of short hand when developing a recipe - Chinese five spice blend, garam masala paste, Cajun seasoning and the medieval European standards of poudre fort and poudre douce are all good examples - bouquet garnie is a similar thing for herbs. It should not be surprising that, given such a mixture exists, spice merchants serving the relevant culture might well sell it pre-blended for convenience.

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.


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.
  • Great for time travellers - with a few exceptions (notably saffron) - most spices are exponentially cheaper and fresher in modern times than they were anywhere outside their source areas in history (and in many cases improved farming techniques have made them cheaper there as well). Relatively small quantities of material can be sold at a high mark up, or given as expensive gifts for relatively little outlay.
    • Some figures: The Hodges List of Medieval Prices gives a 1331 price of 1-3 shillings per pound for spices (including, for example, cinnamon). The UK National Archives historical price converter gives equivalent of 1 shilling ~ £30.67. A quick search online gives 2019 prices for powdered cinnamon as low as £7 per kilo or about £3.20 per pound. Also noting that the medieval cinnamon, by the time it made it to Western Europe, would also still be in bark form and probably not all that fresh.
  • PCs might find themselves scouting for new trade routes or sources for spices, or otherwise commissioned 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.
    • Covering up spoiled meat with spices is something of an overdone trope in popular culture … generally fresh meat was a lot cheaper that spices and anyone who could afford to spice meat wouldn't be serving it rotten (with the possible exception of game, which is often served "well matured").
  • Spices are a useful adjunct with which travellers can make their iron rations edible.
  • The "spice" from Frank Herbert's Dune was more of an entheogenic drug than a seasoning (although it was apparently used as seasoning as well).
  • Another misuse of the word "spice" is its use to refer to a range of synthetic cannabinoids used for recreational purposes.
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