This incredibly tall evergreen tree (syzygium aromaticum) is native to the Molucca Islands (also known as the Spice Islands) in Southeast Asia. The name clove comes from the Latin clavus, which means “nail,” and describes the shape and texture of the clove. The spice is a flower bud, picked when bright red, and dried. The result is a potent nugget of volatile oil, a natural anesthetic so strong it was commonly chewed to relieve toothaches. Cloves have long been appreciated for their aroma, burned as incense, smoked in cigarettes, and jabbed into citrus fruit as pomander balls.
Its popularity prompted a spice race of epic proportions, and dom- ination of the Spice Islands jostled between the Portuguese, Spanish, British, and Dutch throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
While the United States and much of Europe see the clove as a sweet spice, it’s utilized in more savory applications in the East. Cloves easily find their way into curries, pickles, sausages, and spice mixes like Chinese five-spice (see Appendix B). It’s an important element of classic French Béchamel sauce, where its character combines deliciously with onion and bay.