Welcome to Spice Club!
The first rule of Spice Club is that we will give you a different spice kit starting on the first Monday of every month.
The second rule of Spice Club is that this is a take-and-make kit. Each kit contains a sample of the spice, four recipe cards that include the spice of the month, and a history of the spice.
Visit the calendar to register for our monthly Spice Club Demonstrations. You will get to taste one or more of the recipes included in your kit.
Vanilla is from the dried, cured beans or fruit pods of the green-stemmed climbing perennial of the Vanilla species, which is a member of the orchid family. The botanical name, Vanilla, derives from the Spanish name for the spice, vanilla, and is a diminutive of vaina meaning “sheath or pod”. Vanilla grows on vines that climb shrubs and trees in tropical forested areas. The vines typically require 3 to 4 years to flower, and afterward flower once a year. In native Mexico, indigenous bees perform the pollination of vanilla orchid flowers but most cultivated vanilla is hand pollinated. After the flowers are pollinated, they mature and develop for 8-10 months into long pods that look like string beans, hence the term “vanilla bean”. Inside the pods are thousands of tiny seeds which contain the main flavor components of vanilla . Unlike most other spices, the process of harvesting vanilla is rather complicated, because fresh (green) vanilla beans do not have much flavor. The flavor of vanilla is typically produced after a 3-6 month long curing process. This, and the practice of manual pollination, makes vanilla one of the most expensive spices (after saffron).
Vanilla was prized as an incense, flavoring, and perfume in ancient Mesoamerica by the Maya, Aztec, and Totonac cultures. The ancient Aztecs flavored a chocolate beverage, called Xoco-lall, with vanilla and to this day vanilla is a common ingredient in chocolate candies and beverages. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortéz sampled this drink and returned to Spain with reports it contained magical powers.
Vanilla may be one of the most popular flavors today but for centuries, vanilla was thought of as nothing more than an additive for chocolate. Vanilla gained its independence from chocolate in the early 17th century when a creative apothecary developed a chocolate-free, vanilla flavored candy for Queen Elizabeth I. In France, vanilla quickly became a favorite flavor for ice cream and Thomas Jefferson brought the recipe home after a stint in Paris as American minister to France. By the late 1800s, demand for vanilla skyrocketed as it became an integral ingredient in soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
For a long time, Mexico was the only exporter of vanilla since only insects native to Mexico were able to pollinate the plant. In fact, the Mexican city of Papantla was known as “the city that perfumed the world”. Then in 1836, the Belgium’s discovered a method to hand pollinate vanilla and Europeans quickly began to grow vanilla across their colonial empires. By the 1870s, the French island colonies of Madagascar and Bourbon (named after the Bourbon kings of France – now called Reunion Island) became the major world producers. To this day vanilla produced in this region is often referred to as “Bourbon” vanilla.
Cinnamon, (Cinnamomum verum), also called Ceylon cinnamon, bushy evergreen tree of the laurel family (Lauraceae) and the spice derived from its bark. Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), the neighbouring Malabar Coast of India, and Myanmar (Burma) and is also cultivated in South America and the West Indies. The spice, consisting of the dried inner bark, is brown in colour and has a delicately fragrant aroma and a warm sweet flavour. Cinnamon is used to flavour a variety of foods, from confections to curries to beverages, and is popular in bakery goods in many places. Essential oil is distilled from the bark fragments for use in food, liqueur, perfume, and drugs.
Cinnamon was once more valuable than gold. In Egypt it was sought for embalming and religious practices. In medieval Europe it was used for religious rites and as a flavouring. Later it was the most profitable spice in the Dutch East India Company trade. Various related species are also cultivated as a source of cinnamon spice, including Chinese cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), Vietnamese, or Saigon, cinnamon (C. loureiroi), Indonesian cinnamon (C. burmannii), and Malabar cinnamon (C. citriodorum).
The cinnamon tree grows in moist well-drained soils and rarely reaches more than 15 metres (49 feet) in height. The thick simple leaves have smooth margins and are usually oval; the veins are roughly parallel to each other. Young leaves are red and mature to a deep green. The small bisexual flowers are greenish to yellow and are borne in clusters. The fruit is a dark drupe.
The grower harvests the main crop in the wet season, cutting the shoots close to the ground. In processing, the shoots are first scraped with a semicircular blade and then rubbed with a brass rod to loosen the bark, which is split with a knife and peeled. The peels are telescoped one into another, forming a quill about 107 cm (42 inches) long and filled with trimmings of the same quality bark to maintain a cylindrical shape. After four or five days of drying, the quills are rolled on a board to tighten the filling and then placed in subdued sunlight for further drying. Finally, they are bleached with sulfur dioxide and sorted into grades.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “cinnamon”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Aug. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/plant/cinnamon. Accessed 12 September 2021.
Clove, (Syzygium aromaticum), tropical evergreen tree of the family Myrtaceae and its small reddish brown flower buds used as a spice. Cloves were important in the earliest spice trade and are believed to be indigenous to the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, of Indonesia. Strong of aroma and hot and pungent in taste, cloves are used to flavour many foods, particularly meats and bakery products; in Europe and the United States the spice is a characteristic flavouring in Christmas holiday fare, such as wassail and mincemeat.
As early as 200 BCE, envoys from Java to the Han-dynasty court of China brought cloves that were customarily held in the mouth to perfume the breath during audiences with the emperor. During the late Middle Ages, cloves were used in Europe to preserve, flavour, and garnish food. Clove cultivation was almost entirely confined to Indonesia, and in the early 17th century the Dutch eradicated cloves on all islands except Amboina and Ternate in order to create scarcity and sustain high prices. In the latter half of the 18th century the French smuggled cloves from the East Indies to Indian Ocean islands and the New World, breaking the Dutch monopoly.
In the early 21st century, Indonesia was the world’s largest producer of cloves, followed by Madagascar, Tanzania, and Sri Lanka.
The clove tree is an evergeen that grows to about 8 to 12 meters (25 to 40 feet) in height. Its gland-dotted leaves are small, simple, and opposite. The trees are usually propagated from seeds that are planted in shaded areas. Flowering begins about the fifth year; a tree may annually yield up to 34 kg (75 pounds) of dried buds. The buds are hand-picked in late summer and again in winter and are then sun-dried. Cloves vary in length from about 13 to 19 mm (0.5 to 0.75 inch).
The buds contain 14 to 20 percent essential oil, the principal component of which is the aromatic oil eugenol. Cloves are strongly pungent owing to eugenol, which is extracted by distillation to yield oil of cloves. This oil is used to prepare microscopic slides for viewing and is also a local anesthetic for toothaches. Eugenol is used in germicides, perfumes, and mouthwashes, in the synthesis of vanillin, and as a sweetener or intensifier.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Melissa Petruzzello, Associate Editor.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Clove”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 Apr. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/plant/clove. Accessed 13 October 2021.
Ginger, (Zingiber officinale), herbaceous perennial plant of the family Zingiberaceae, probably native to southeastern Asia, or its aromatic, pungent rhizome (underground stem) used as a spice, flavouring, food, and medicine. Its generic name Zingiber is derived from the Greek zingiberis, which comes from the Sanskrit name of the spice, singabera. Its use in India and China has been known from ancient times, and by the 1st century CE traders had taken ginger into the Mediterranean region. By the 11th century it was well known in England. The Spaniards brought it to the West Indies and Mexico soon after the conquest, and by 1547 ginger was being exported from Santiago to Spain.
The spice has a slightly biting taste and is used, usually dried and ground, to flavour breads, sauces, curry dishes, confections, pickles, and ginger ale. The fresh rhizome, green ginger, is used in cooking. The peeled rhizomes may be preserved by boiling in syrup. In Japan and elsewhere, slices of ginger are eaten between dishes or courses to clear the palate. Ginger is used medically to treat flatulence and colic.
The leafy stems of ginger grow about a metre high. The leaves are 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) long, elongate, alternate in two vertical rows, and arise from sheaths enwrapping the stem. The flowers are in dense conelike spikes about 1 inch thick and 2 to 3 inches long that are composed of overlapping green bracts, which may be edged with yellow. Each bract encloses a single, small, yellow-green and purple flower.
Ginger is propagated by planting rootstalk cuttings and has been under this type of cultivation for so long that it no longer goes to seed. Harvesting is done simply by lifting the rhizomes from the soil, cleansing them, and drying them in the sun. The dried ginger rhizomes are irregular in shape, branched or palmate. Their colour varies from dark yellow through light brown to pale buff. Ginger may be unscraped (with all of its cork layer); partly scraped; or scraped or peeled (with all of its cork, epidermis, and hypodermis removed).
Ginger contains about 2 percent essential oil; the principal component is zingiberene and the pungent principle of the spice is zingerone. The oil is distilled from rhizomes for use in the food and perfume industries.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Alison Eldridge, Digital Content Manager.
Eldridge, Alison. “Ginger.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 30 Nov. 2020, www.britannica.com/plant/ginger.
Nutmeg, (Myristica fragrans), tropical evergreen tree (family Myristicaceae) and the spice made of its seed. The tree is native to the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, of Indonesia and is principally cultivated there and in the West Indies. The spice nutmeg has a distinctive pungent fragrance and a warm slightly sweet taste; it is used to flavour many kinds of baked goods, confections, puddings, potatoes, meats, sausages, sauces, vegetables, and such beverages as eggnog. The fleshy arils surrounding the nutmeg seed are the source of the spice mace. Historically, grated nutmeg was used as a sachet, and the Romans used it as incense. Around 1600 it became important as an expensive commercial spice in the Western world and was the subject of Dutch plots to keep prices high and of English and French counterplots to obtain fertile seeds for transplantation. The nutmegs sold whole were dipped in lime to prevent their sprouting.
Nutmeg trees may reach a height of about 20 metres (65 feet). They yield fruit eight years after sowing, reach their prime in 25 years, and bear fruit for 60 years or longer. The fruit is a pendulous drupe, similar in appearance to an apricot. When fully mature it splits in two, exposing a crimson-coloured aril, the mace, surrounding a single shiny brown seed, the nutmeg. The pulp of the fruit is eaten locally. After collection the aril-enveloped nutmegs are conveyed to curing areas where the mace is removed, flattened out, and dried. The nutmegs are dried gradually in the sun and turned twice daily over a period of six to eight weeks. During this time the nutmeg shrinks away from its hard seed coat until the kernels rattle in their shells when shaken. The shell is then broken with a wooden truncheon and the nutmegs are picked out. Dried nutmegs are grayish brown ovals with furrowed surfaces.
Nutmeg and mace contain 7 to 14 percent essential oil, the principal components of which are pinene, camphene, and dipentene. Nutmeg on expression yields about 24 to 30 percent fixed oil called nutmeg butter, or oil of mace, the principal component of which is trimyristin. The oils are used as condiments and carminatives and to scent soaps and perfumes. An ointment of nutmeg butter has been used as a counterirritant and in treatment of rheumatism. When consumed in large amounts, nutmeg has psychoactive effects and is reported to be a deliriant and hallucinogen. Nutmeg poisoning is rarely fatal but can cause convulsions, palpitations, and pain.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “nutmeg”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 May. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/nutmeg. Accessed 23 November 2021.
Paprika, spice made from the pods of Capsicum annuum, an annual shrub belonging to the nightshade family, Solanaceae, and native to tropical areas of the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico, Central America, South America, and the West Indies.
- Annuum is cultivated throughout most of the world for its pods, often called chili peppers, or chilies. The species includes most of the sweet peppers and many of the pungent, strong-flavoured types. Depending on the variety, the pods may be 0.5 inch to 1 foot (12.5 mm to 0.3 m) in length, with a long, round, or conical shape, and yellow, brown, purple, or red colour. A spongy central column bears the flat, kidney-shaped seeds.
Crops are planted in early spring and harvested in the summer and fall, when the pods are glossy and ripe. The pods are then dried and ground to produce paprika. When mild paprikas are made, the central core is first removed.
Paprika has some sugar content, varying with the variety, and is richer in vitamin C than the citrus fruits. Pungency is imparted by the nitrogen compound capsaicin, which is usually lower in C. annuum than in other plants of the same genus. A colouring agent, oleoresin of paprika, is extracted from the ground pods and used to impart bright red colour to meat and sausage products and to other processed foods.
The rose paprika of Hungary is generally considered the finest variety. It is made from choice dark red pods that have a sweet flavour and aroma. A sharper Hungarian variety, Koenigspaprika, or king’s paprika, is made from the whole pepper.
Paprika is a popular seasoning in many cuisines. Its bright colour makes it an excellent garnish for nonsweet, light-coloured foods. It is frequently used in the cooking of Spain, Mexico, and the countries of the Balkan Peninsula. It is especially associated with Hungarian cuisine and is essential for such hot, spicy, Hungarian stew dishes as gulyás (called goulash in the United States), pörkölt, paprikás, and tokány.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Levy, Executive Editor.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “paprika”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Mar. 2020,
https://www.britannica.com/topic/paprika. Accessed 2 September 2021.
Star anise, dry fruits of the star anise tree (Illicium verum), used as a spice and source of pharmaceutical chemicals. The plant is indigenous to the southeastern part of China and to Vietnam. The flavour and uses of the fruit are similar to those of anise (Pimpinella anisum), to which is it is unrelated. The volatile, aromatic essential oil is commonly used for flavouring candies, liqueurs, and perfumes. In the pharmaceutical industry, star anise is a major source of shikimic acid, which is used in the synthesis of the anti-influenza drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu).
The fruit takes its name from the starlike arrangement of its carpels around a central axis. The dried fruit is about 0.25 to 0.5 cm (0.1 to 0.2 inch) in diameter; individual carpels are usually about 1 cm in length and contain a single seed. Dried carpels are hard, rough, and reddish brown; the seeds are smooth, lustrous, and light brown. The dried fruit’s essential oil content is about 3 percent, and its principal component is anethole.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Melissa Petruzzello.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “star anise”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Sep. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/plant/star-anise.