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Built on spice

Once worth more than its weight in gold, we discover how London's reputation as a global banking and trading powerhouse was built on spice.

Atul Kochhar was one of the first Indian chefs to receive a Michelin star. His restaurant, Benares, in Mayfair, is acclaimed for its modern Indian cuisine, with its skilful blending of western and eastern cooking traditions and ingredients. Unsurprisingly, Kochhar uses all kinds of esoteric spices. And yet where would Kochhar best source these? Back in his native lands of Jamshedpur? "I get a better range of spices here in London than I ever could back in India," he says. "The best of the world's spice crop still comes through London - such that spice has become a common ingredient in all sorts of cuisines here. In fact, I'd say that the availability of spices in the capital has shaped its restaurant scene - the use of curry powder, cloves, saffron, for example, have all become mainstream in even more traditional English cooking, such that national cuisines are merging."

But Kochhar goes further in his praise of London as the world's unexpected spice capital, suggesting that a number of spices that he had not even heard of before came onto his radar precisely because of his being Londonbased: "I hadn't heard of certain chillies, or tonka beans, or lindi peppers before I worked in London," he says, "so just being here means you're introduced to 'new' spices and ideas for your cooking." And perhaps only in London: tonka beans, for example, are banned as a food item in the US (because extremely high levels have been connected to liver problems in rats). And as for lindi peppers - guess where they are from: India.

It may come as a surprise to some that London, stereotyped as grey and damp, should have become the global hub for the hot and exotic. But that is a matter of history, back to the  16th century when spices - now so ubiquitous, imported by food trading conglomerates and available in a wide variety from any supermarket - were hugely valued, their rarity in the west affording them the status of a secure currency. Back then, London dockworkers were paid their bonuses in cloves, and nutmeg was literally worth more than its weight in gold.

Spice, indeed, had long been the builder of empires. The Romans traded spices out of the Middle East by controlling Alexandria in Egypt from the first century BC, paying its soldiers in salt, from which comes the word 'salary'. Come the 13th century, the city state of Venice was built on the back of its controlling the flow of spices from east to west. Columbus 'discovered' America on a commission from the Spanish to find a new sailing route to India, in a bid to dominate its spice trade - he did, at least, find chillies there, but called them 'peppers', hence our still calling them 'chilli peppers'. The Portuguese empire was built on the back of its making the first successful circumnavigation of Africa, in search of spice.

Spice was the builder of empires in the modern era too, effectively leading to Britain's colonisation of India, for example. And that brings the story to London, specifically to its port. Spice may have been valued in part because it was hard to come by - because much of it had to make an arduous journey over land from the east. But it was the discovery of sea routes that truly opened the market - spices became cheaper, more accessible, and so demand rocketed, both for use in food and in medicines.

The London businessmen behind the East India Company saw the chance to make a lot of money, as much in textiles as in tea. But, founded in 1600 by royal charter, it first went up against the Dutch in a bid to monopolise the spice market by opening trade routes with India. And the East India Company really went for it, in despotic fashion: by the time it was dissolved - 140 years ago this year - it had reaped the benefits of having the largest private navy ever created, having one of the biggest private armies and having controlled 50% of world trade. That's all world trade, not just in spices.

Not that it wasn't at times a perilous business too, as was clear from the beginning. This was not necessarily because of the dangerous high seas - one reason why no ship's cargo would ever be entirely devoted to spices, lest it be lost en route - but because even then the market fluctuated. Spare a thought for one Captain James Lancaster, who set sail in 1601 and, sailing up the Thames with a hard-won consignment of pepper in 1603, was told that in the interim Elizabeth I had died and her successor, James I, had struck a deal with the Dutch, causing pepper prices to fall through the floor.

 

 

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