Pumpkin spice: How did it all begin?

An autumnal treat and, these days, a seasonal aesthetic

Like the leaves falling from the trees and the nights drawing in, there’s one more thing that’s inevitable at this time of year: pumpkin EVERYTHING - and, particularly, pumpkin spice.

While this autumnal obsession hasn't quite reached the same heights in the UK as on the other side of the Atlantic, it's pretty hard to avoid. From lattes to scented candles, and now even Spam, the combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves is a familiar feature at this time of year.

But how did it become such a global phenomenon? Well, it's a fragrant journey that started centuries ago, when its key components made their way first to Europe, and then to America.

Nuts about nutmeg

There was a time when spices were incredibly valuable. That was particularly true for nutmeg, one of the main flavours of the spice blend we know today. It’s now grown all over the world, but at one point it could only be found on the Banda Islands in Indonesia, known as the Spice Islands to colonial traders.

In Pulau Ay, archaeologists have found nutmeg residue on shards of pottery estimated to be about 3500-years-old, but it wasn’t until the 1300s that the spice became an international obsession.

After a long and hard-fought race between European powers, the Dutch took hold of most of the region. In an attempt to monopolise the nutmeg trade in 1621, the Dutch East India Company led by Governor-General Jan Pietersszoon Coen brutally made their way through the islands and took the land by force.

The Dutch settlers were very precious about nutmeg, and wouldn’t allow it to be grown anywhere else. In some cases, they actually purposefully destroyed stocks to limit its availability. Because of this, nutmeg was extremely expensive. You may have even heard it was worth more than its weight in gold, but this isn’t quite the case.

Anglo-Dutch historian Gijs Rommelse explained: “It’s a metaphor, but there is some truth in it. The intrinsic price of the good in Indonesia… wasn’t that high, it really is the duration of the journey, the massive investment into these ships, that adds to the price.”

English settlers however had control of one of the spice islands called Run, and the Dutch wanted it. After a series of wars between the two powers, the Treaty of Breda was signed in 1667, and Run was traded for New Netherlands, which included the smaller colony New Amsterdam. You may think you don’t know where that is, but think again - it’s a little place in North America that was later renamed in New York.

New Amsterdam was founded in 1625 by the Dutch, so it’s likely that nutmeg would have found its way there from Batavia (the capital of the ‘Spice Islands’) in the mid-17th Century.

The word nutmeg is now associated with trickery (such as in football), due to wily traders selling wooden fakes

Easy as pies

Whilst this was happening, the pumpkin was becoming ever more popular in the United States - in fact, it was a real staple of the diet for many, including the Plymouth Pilgrims.

The largest pumpkin pie ever baked was in 2005 and weighed 2,020 pounds

Experiments were taking place to improve the taste of pumpkin, and in France, some people had even started putting the puree into pastry bases. Along with the newly available nutmeg, other spices from around the world were making their way to the States by sea, and so the pumpkin pie was almost ready to be born.

Amelia Simmons, who wrote the first American cookery book, is credited with the recipe that enshrined its fame. In 1796 she wrote a recipe for ‘pompkin’ pudding (what we’d now call pie), which included ginger, nutmeg and mace, the spice found on the outer layer of nutmeg plants. Another recipe in the same cookbook used allspice, ginger and molasses - all variations which sound like the 'ancestors' of the modern-day spice blend.

In 1839, a version of the pie recipe was published with cinnamon, which is considered a key part of the mix today. Dr Rommelse explained this delay could be due to the fact that some spice hubs - such as Ceylon, where cinnamon could be found - didn’t have Dutch settlements until decades later, so some spices probably would have taken longer to arrive in the States.

Pumpkin crops are ready to be harvested in October, giving the ingredient plenty of time to find its way into Thanksgiving meals in November. After Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, the sweet treat’s fate was sealed as a symbol of autumn.

Love you a latte

Around the 1930s, a ready-made ‘pumpkin pie spice’ blend was being advertised for sale in American newspapers by well-known brands. Fast-forward to 2003, when Starbucks launched their pumpkin spice latte - frequently credited with having kick-started the flavour combo’s exponential rise to fame.

According to their website, the coffee chain wanted to create a seasonal drink that screamed ‘autumn’, to be sold in the gap between their other seasonal products.

Their research and development team started working on it in spring, so they had to bring the fall to their offices using decorations and pumpkin pies.

Slices of the dessert were followed by shots of espresso, and that's when the light bulbs came on and the latte was born.

The drink sent the world crazy for pumpkin spice: #pumpkinspice has been used over 2 million times on Instagram to tag pictures of all things autumn - from cosy living rooms lit by candles to home baking featuring the spice mix.

Despite the name, the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte recipe didn’t contain any real pumpkin until 2015

There are many different theories behind this success story: a sense of nostalgia; its limited, seasonal availability; even the comfort of a sweet and spicy treat when times are tough.

But whatever the reason, this simple combination of spices is a reminder of the incredible story behind some of the ingredients we can easily access today.

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