Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Jean Henri Fabre


"W HEN we speak of spices we mean those vegetable substances of aromatic odor and hot and pungent taste that are used to heighten the flavor of food and digestion. The principal ones are pepper, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla.

"Pepper is the fruit of a shrub called the pepper-plant. You have often seen those little round black grains, with such a pungent taste, that are used for seasoning certain kinds of food—sausages for example. Those are the berries of the pepper-plant just as the bush produces them."


Branch of Pepper Plant with Berries

"And do those grains, when they are powdered, give pepper?" asked Jules; "such as we see on the table every day beside the salt-cellar?"

"Exactly," replied Uncle Paul. "The culture of the pepper-plant is successful only in the hottest parts of the world, chiefly in two of the Sunda Islands, Sumatra and Java. It is a shrub with a slender and flexible stalk having the form of a runner and winding around neighboring tree-trunks. Its leaves are oval, leathery, and shiny; its blossoms small, grouped in long and slender hanging clusters; and its berries, which are no larger than our currants, are first green, and finally red when ripe. Pepper is gathered when the bunches begin to turn red. The harvested berries are put to dry on mats in the sun, whereupon they soon turn black and wrinkled, taking thereafter the name of black pepper.

"As their sharp flavor is chiefly confined to the outside integument of the berry, this is sometimes stripped off in order to obtain a less pungent variety of pepper. For this purpose the freshly gathered berries are soaked in water, which makes them swell and crack their outer skin. After that they are exposed to the sun and, when dry, all that needs to be done is to rub them between the hands and then fan them to blow away the exterior covering. This process gives white pepper, which is much milder than the black.

"If you examine somewhat attentively a single grain of the spice called cloves, after letting it soak some time in water until it becomes swollen and expanded, you will easily perceive it to be a flower. Cloves are, in fact, the blossoms of a tree called the clove-tree, gathered and dried in the sun before they are full-blown. The upper part of these blossoms, being rounded like a button, bears some resemblance to the head of a nail; the lower part, which is long and slender, is not unlike the pointed portion. From this rough resemblance comes the name of clove  (which is connected with the Latin clavus  and the French clou,  meaning a nail).


Flowering Branch of Clove Tree and Unopened Bud

"The Moluccas, or Spice Islands, are the home of the clove. It is a fine tree, about fifteen meters high, with slender branches, oval and shiny leaves, and very strong-scented flowers grouped in clusters.

"Cinnamon is the bark of a tree, the cinnamon tree, originally from the island of Ceylon, but now cultivated in our tropical colonies. With the point of a pruning-knife the bark of the branches is detached in strips, which are laid together according to size, a narrower on a wider strip, and are then exposed to the sun, whereupon they curl up like quills, one within another, in the process of drying."

"From the look of cinnamon as it is sold by the grocer," said Marie, "you can easily see that it is a bark; but I didn't know what country it came from or what tree produced it."


Flowering Branch of Cinnamon Tree

"From the Molucca Islands, noted as the chief source of the world's supply of spices, we get, in addition to cloves, nutmeg, which is now successfully raised in our colonies. The nutmeg plant is a graceful tree which grows nearly ten meters high. In its rounded head and thick foliage it resembles the orange tree. Its leaves are large, oval, glossy green on the upper side, and whitish underneath; its blossoms, small, bell-shaped, and pendent like those of the lily of the valley, are very sweet-smelling. The fruit, as large as a medium-sized peach, is composed of three parts. First comes a fleshy, edible exterior which at maturity breaks in two; next to this is a network of slender strands, very bright scarlet in color, which yields the spice known as mace; and finally, in the center, lies the seed, or nutmeg proper, which is used as spice. This latter is an oval-shaped body of the size of a large olive, its flesh scented, oily, and very firm, with reddish veins running through it.

"Vanilla grows in damp and shady forests in the coast districts of Guiana and Colombia. It is a plant with a slender stalk that takes the form of a runner and interlaces the neighboring branches, stretching even from one tree to another, and resembling a small cord covered with beautiful green leaves. Its flowers are large and graceful in shape, white inside, and greenish yellow outside. The fruit, the part to which we give the name vanilla, is sought for its balsamic, sweet odor and its mild, very agreeable taste. It is composed of a viscous pulp and a multitude of very small seeds. In shape and appearance it is long and cylindrical, black, slightly curved, and of the size of one's finger. Vanilla is used to flavor custard, whipped cream, and other similar dishes of which you children never refuse a second helping."


Flowering Branch of Vanilla Plant