Cloves (from the Latin word for nail, clavus) are native to the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, which now form part of Indonesia.
The Chinese wrote of cloves as early as the fifth century BC. By 200 BC there are records of courtiers being required to sweeten their breath by keeping cloves in their mouths when addressing the Emperor of China. By the sixteenth century the Portuguese controlled the trade in cloves until forced from the Moluccas by the Dutch in 1605. The Dutch restricted the cultivation of cloves to one island, slaughtering most of the indigenous population in the process. It was not until 1770 that seedlings were smuggled away from the Moluccas (by the French), which broke the Dutch monopoly. Today cloves are widely cultivated in India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, the West Indies and elsewhere.
Cloves have a strong, warm and rich aroma; their taste is aromatic and astringent. They are available whole as small rust-brown studs with lighter crowns and tapering stems, or ground to a powder. They are used to flavour sweet and savoury foods from apple pies to curries (they are an essential ingredient in garam masala) to baked hams.
Cloves have many traditional medicinal uses including the treatment of gout, dyspepsia, diarrhoea, flatulence, ringworm, athlete’s foot and nausea. They are believed to be carminative, antifungal and analgesic. The essential oil relieves toothache when applied topically to the gums (clove oil is found in many mouthwashes). Cloves are also said to be aphrodisiac and effective in suppressing cravings for alcohol.