Every society seems to have its own luxurious items, available only to the dominant casts, to the rulers, to those who dictate not only the present, but in some ways also the future.
Clearly, you can get quite rich, very rich, if you happen to dominate the market of these goods, as history has shown that no logic exists regarding their market price. In fact, it seems that the more expensive they are the more they seem to be used as a symbol of power and wealth, regardless of their real value.
During the middle ages some of the most luxurious products someone could lay hands on were the spices. Products like cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, nutmeg, for example, were among the most prized ones. And their market was dominated by the Venetians. The Republic of Venice, for around 6 centuries, dominated the trade of these substances with the Middle-East and most of Asia.
By the XVth century two of the most powerful countries in Europe, Portugal and Spain, where, for obvious reasons, quite unhappy with this situation. The decision taken by their rulers was an obvious result of such unhappiness: they decided to free themselves from the Venetian monopoly establishing their own trade routes with the Eastern world. How to do that? Build nice ships, hire good sailors, and set them to sea in search of practical new routes. Among the most known expeditions launched were those headed by Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus), Pedro Alvares Cabral and Vasco da Gama. Colombus landed in America in 1492, Cabral discovered South America, having reached Brazil in 1500 and Vasco da Gama commanded the first ship to sail directly from Europe to India in 1497-1498. All of this mainly because of spices.
I’m not even going to mention the spices discovered in this new world, like chili pepper, vanilla and chocolate, which, also needless to say, spread around the world in a reversed travel towards the East and in such a way that it’s almost impossible to imagine present-day Eastern food without their presence, specially of the chili pepper (just take a look at some of the main dishes in China, Thailand, India, etc). The point is, spices really made the world go ’round at that time.
Among the old Eastern spices 2 of my favorites are star anise and cinnamon.
Star anise is the fruit of Illicium verum, a small tree native of China, widely used in its dried form not only in China, but also in India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Cinnamon, is actually the bark of Cinnamomum verum, also a small tree, but native of Sri Lanka. Cinnamon, along with black pepper, are perhaps the most widely known, and still used, spices in present-day cuisine.
All of this just to mention that I was very happy to find a recipe by one of my favorite chefs, the Australian Kylie Kwong, using both (cinnamon and star anise) to prepare a sweet-sour plum sauce to go along a crisp-skin duck.
I followed the recipe available at the ABC site with 2 exceptions: (1) the plums were not really blood plums, but a lighter version, as you can see in the above picture and, (2) instead of Sichuan pepper and salt I used sea salt with crushed black pepper corns (4:1).
The result, and specially the sauce, was superb. The 2 spices, star anise and cinnamon, added a very nice dimension to the simple water/sugar base, perfectly complementing the sourness of the lime. My daughter Juliana, who happens to be a professional chef, ate it even with ice cream.