Syzygium aromaticum tree has been a treasured spice for millennia - in Western civilization dating at least as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Because these hard brown buds resemble a carpenter's nail, the Romans called the spice clavus, meaning nail in Latin. From this Latin root come both the present-day English name, clove, and the Portuguese name cravo.
The spice is native only to the Molucca Islands in Indonesia, the original Spice Islands, though it is now cultivated in other tropical lands. In ancient times cloves were transported to the Mediterranean at great expense and sold there at enormous profit by Arab and Indian middle-men, and until the early 1500s they enjoyed a monopoly on the clove trade. Because of this association with India, the Portuguese refer to the clove as cravo-da-Índia. In 1497 Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama became the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope and on to India, thus destroying the Indian/Arab monopoly on the spice trade and establishing the basis for Portuguese colonization of ports in India, Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Brazil tangentially. Portugal became extravagantly wealthy as a result of its trade with Asia, and a great portion of that wealth was due to spices.
Because of Portugal's long connection to the spice trade, these spices - in particular cinnamon and cloves - became important ingredients in Portuguese cuisine and subsequently in Brazilian cooking. Naturally the spices were used to flavor sweets and pastries, but they also had important roles in savory cooking as well, in dishes such as soups and stews.
Jorge Amado, perhaps Brazil's most famous 20th Century novelist, is noted for the way he was able to convey the particular sensuousness of Brazil's racially-mixed culture, and he was well aware of how spices contributed to this. One of his best-known novels, which was made into a sensationally popular Brazilian TV serial as well as an international film starring Sonia Braga and Marcello Mastroianni, is called Gabriela, Cravo e Canela in reference to the titular character's "spiciness". The book has been translated into English as Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon.
In upcoming posts, Flavors of Brazil will highlight the use of cloves in Brazilian cuisine, and we'll share some typical Brazilian recipes that call for this exotic and aromatic spice.