After ousting the Portuguese, the Omani Arabs ruled over Zanzibar but their influence wasn’t really felt until 1804 when Seyyid Said bin Sultan arrived from Oman and fell in love with this lush tropical island. He made Zanzibar the capital of the Omani empire and moved his court and palaces to the island in 1832. In 1818, he introduced cloves to the islands and they flourished in the sunshine and fertile soil on the west coasts of both Unguja and Pemba.
During the nineteenth century, clove mania hit the islands and the archipelago became the largest producer of cloves in the world. Coconuts, cloves, ivory and slaves powered Zanzibar’s economy making it a centre for trade. In 1860, cloves made up 22% of Zanzibar’s export, with the royal family receiving a hefty 25% export tax on all clove exports despite the stagnation of the market caused by overproduction.
The royal family owned several plantations manned by slaves picking, drying and sorting cloves in the baking sun. Over time, other spices were introduced from Asia and South America including cinnamon, ginger and cardamom, which became an integral part of Zanzibari life. The archipelago became known as the Spice Islands and it was said that sailors were greeted by the scent of cloves floating through the wind as they sailed into port in Zanzibar.
The spice trade has declined in recent times, with some farms receiving more money from tourism and spice tours than the sale of the crops. Pemba remains more committed to cloves production as a legacy from the hurricane in 1872, which swept away two thirds of the clove trees on Unguja. Pemba increased its output to compensate for this and Unguja was hit once again in 1940 by drought, killing over 70,000 clove trees and damaging the spice farms.
Nowadays, spice farms are government owned and the crops are sold at a fixed price to the government, who mass export them abroad. Cloves are also pressed into oil used for perfumes. Much of the work on the farms is still done by hand, with young boys climbing trees to pick fruit and spices and whole villages in Pemba are involved in harvesting, drying and sorting the cloves.
ZANZIBAR SPICES Cloves
The word clove comes from the French word ‘clou’, meaning nail, which the buds resemble. The best time to harvest cloves is when the buds are green with the cap covering them intact. Cloves are used in pickling and can be found in the chinese five spice and garam masala spice mixtures. Clove oil is used in perfumes; dental products, cigarettes and also acts as an antiseptic.
Zanzibar is on of the producers of greencardamom which is one of the three most expensive plants in the world. The pods house sticky aromatic black seeds with a sweet taste. Cardamom loses its essential oil and flavour quickly and is best used fresh. It can be used as a digestive, a breath freshener or to treat stomach pain and heartburn. On Zanzibar however, it’s used to flavour pilau and chai.
Indigenous to Sri Lanka, cinnamon is peeled in strips from the bark of the cinnamon tree. Fresh cinnamon has an almost lemony scent whilst drying releases the warm woody scent we’re accustomed to. An essential ingredient in garam masala, cinnamon can be ground into a powder and used in desserts or whole to flavour pilau, curries, meat dishes and chai.
Vanilla beans grow on an orchid filled with tiny seeds with a rich fragrant scent. The beans are picked when they’re immature and still yellow and left to dry in the sun to ferment and become dark brown, moist and sticky inside. Vanilla grown in Zanzibar originally came from Madagascar and is used to flavour desserts and custards.
The most expensive spice in the world, saffron is hand picked from purple crocus flowers where 20,000 stems make just 125g of saffron. Well known for its medical properties, saffron is used to flavour rice and Indian desserts, giving foods a rich golden yellow hue. It was believed to induce sleep, act as a heart tonic, a cure for flatulence and as an aphrodisiac.
Split open the apricot like fruit of a nutmeg tree and you’ll find a shiny brown nut, wrapped in a scarlet red lattice. Nutmeg only grows in equatorial regions, originating from the Moluccas and is used to flavour desserts. If taken in high quantities it has narcotic and hallucinogenic effects. In Zanzibar, the red lace is dried and made into a tea to cure bridal shyness on a woman’s wedding night.
Ginger thrives in warm climates and has a sweet lemony flavour if it’s cut when fresh. As ginger ages, it becomes more fibrous and tough to peel. It’s a base flavour for many Chinese and Indian dishes and can be used to help digestion and improve blood circulation.