A fire was started in the forests of the Dutch East Indies (the Moluccas Islands) in 1816 that might be considered the most fragrant fire in history. Dutch inhabitants regularly burned off young clove trees in an effort to regulate supply and keep prices high for this costly and most-prized spice. However, the fire of 1816 destroyed an unprecedented amount of young clove trees. And though this fire proved disastrous for the Dutch, it did open the door for the spice to be cultivated in other lands.
Originally from Indonesia, the clove tree is happy on any mountainous tropical island, where, as the saying goes, “it can see the sea.” The French island of Mauritius was such an island. An early expedition to the Moluccas Islands resulted in the acquisition of some clove seeds and seedlings. And, from an initial planting in the 1770s, clove seeds were sent to French islands in the Caribbean, as well as to Reunion, Madagascar and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Gradually, the islands off Africa, particularly Zanzibar (Tanzania) and Madagascar, became the world’s main sources of this spice.
What are cloves?
Cloves are the dried, unopened flower buds of the evergreen tree, Syzygium aromaticum, a myrtle that grows to a height of 30 to 40 ft. Flowering in about seven years, clove trees produce for 80 or more years, and can live as long as 100 years. Individual records note 150-year-old trees.
The word “clove” comes from the French clou, or nail, which describes its shape. The bud is composed of two parts: the stem and the bulbous head. It is more desirable for the buds of whole cloves to be intact — heads and stems attached — but this is not as important when they are going to be ground.
To harvest this strongly aromatic and intensely fragrant spice, the buds must be picked when the heads develop a pink cast, or just before they open; if they are allowed to flower, they have no value as a spice. At picking, the buds are fairly uniform in color, but as they dry in the sun, the stems turn dark brown and the heads become light tan in color. A mature tree may produce from 7 to 40 lbs. of spice in one harvest. It takes between 4,000 and 7,000 buds to make 1 lb. of dried cloves. During the drying, buds lose two-thirds of their harvested weight.
Clove products and uses
Cloves are produced in many parts of the world, from their native Indonesia to several other countries in the Indian Ocean and Latin America. Indonesia, in addition to being a major clove producer, is also the largest clove consumer. Here, clove-flavored cigarettes, called kreteks, use much of the world’s clove production.
The United States imports “hand-picked” cloves from Penang and Sri Lanka. This trade term does not refer to harvesting, but rather to the hand selecting of dried cloves to get the biggest, best-looking specimens. These are used in fancy retail packs, or where food manufacturers use cloves to make an impressive garnish. However, most U.S. imports are from the Madagascar area (including the Comores). Tanzania (Zanzibar) was a major source, but in recent years, production has declined.
Cloves’ characteristic odor and flavor properties are determined by their aromatic-steam volatile-oil composition. The major constituent of the oil and oleoresin is eugenol, the ingredient that gives the characteristic clove flavor and aroma. Cloves also contain about 2% of triterpene oleanolic acid.
Volatile-oil content is the essential quality factor in cloves, and various areas consistently supply product, which meets or exceeds 15% volatile oil. Origin specifications are not necessary in clove buying. Instead, the customer specifies volatile-oil percentage, and various other analytical measurements, and the spice company meets the specifications from whichever source currently is available.
In addition to whole and ground cloves, substantial quantities of clove oil are used in the United States — some in food products, but most heavily in perfumes, cosmetics, medicines, mouthwashes and toothpastes. The oil is dominated by eugenol (70% to 85%), eugenol acetate (15%) and beta-caryophyllene (5% to 12%), which together make up 99% of the oil.
Clove-oil products are distilled from the stems and leaves, as well as the buds. The leaves yield roughly 2%, the stems about 4% to 6% and the buds approximately 15% to 17% of essential oil
Clove-bud oil is the premium product, and is used as a food flavoring and seasoning-blend ingredient, as well as in high-quality perfumes. Stem oil, because of its bud-type character, is principally used as a less-expensive replacement for bud oil. Leaf oil ordinarily is not used in its crude form, but is further processed to isolate its eugenol and eugenol derivatives.
Cloves are the most potent of all the aromatic spices. As a result, they are used at fairly low levels in a wide range of products. Similar to cinnamon, cloves are used in both sweet and savory dishes, from baked ham to sweet pickles.
In Asian, Middle Eastern, Northern African and Arabic cuisines, cloves primarily are used in meat dishes. European palates seem to dislike clove’s intense flavor, and use it mostly for desserts and stewed fruit. Cloves have an important supporting function in countless spice and seasoning combinations for sweet baked goods, sausages, luncheon meats and spreads, soups, salad dressings, relishes and casserole-type preparations, from baked beans to pot roast. Spice mixtures containing cloves include Chinese five-spice powder, French quatre épices, curry powder, Indian garam masala, Arabic bahart, Moroccan ras el hanout, Tunisian gâlat dagga, Ethiopian berebere and Mexican mole sauces, to name a few.
How to handle cloves
Cloves may be purchased whole and ground for individual use. Ground cloves should be stored in a cool, dry place. Excessive heat will volatilize and dissipate the aromatic essential oils, and high humidity will produce caking. Containers should be dated when they arrive, so that older stock is used first. Store product off the floor and away from walls to minimize dampness. Prolonged exposure to the air will cause some loss of flavor and aroma.
Under good storage conditions, aroma and flavor, the qualities for which cloves are prized, will be retained long enough to meet any normal food manufacturing requirements.
Spice Rack is based on the American Spice Trade Association's What You Should Know informational series on spices. For more information, call 201-568-2163, or visit www.astaspice.org.
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