In the course of time the use of plants and particularly spices, herbs and perfumes came to be associated with the development of individual cultures. In China, some 5,000 years ago, the emperor Shen Nung assembled the first documentation on herbs. The Chinese were already eating cloves in the fourth century B.C., and a century later this spice, which among other things was prized in antiquity as an aphrodisiac, was being grown in the Moluccas.
In the Fertile Crescent those scrupulous bookkeepers, the Sumerians, handed down their testimony of hundreds of plants on clay tablets (3000-2000 B.C.). At Ur, in Mesopotamia, the people ate cereals and vegetables, flavoring them with watercress and mustard leaves, and washing everything down with beer, which they invented; this was not yet flavored with hops but probably with some local aromatic plant. The technique of brewing was then passed on to Egypt; here the basic food consisted of cereals prepared in liquid and often flavored.
The Babylonians grew bay, thyme, and coriander, and exported herbs, spices, and aromatic herbs to Egypt, which also imported from the Orient star anise, cumin, fenugreek, opium, thyme and saffron, used in food, medicine, cosmetics, and perfumery. Through their commerce with Asia, the Egyptians were also familiar with cinnamon and incense. Knowledge of aromatic plants was extremely important to them because production of oils and essences was not only vital to earthly existence but also in the attempt to conquer death through the process of embalming.
The regions of the Fertile Crescent therefore constituted an ideal bridge between the Orient and the Mediterranean basin, with a thriving trade in agricultural plants, herbs and spices.
On the Mediterranean island of Minoan Crete the plants of the families Labiatae and Umbelliferae, full of scent and flavor, were household items, then as now used for accompanying simple dishes that consisted mainly of vegetables including onions and garlic. The seeds of umbellifers (coriander, cumin) were utilized for flavoring a mixture of roasted barley meal; the basic food, in fact, was a kind of soup (kikeon), consisting of ordinary barley meal seasoned with cheese, wine, linseed, and aromatic labiates. Barley, still further diluted, was used in the preparation of a type of infusion (ptis?ne), obtained by filtering with water and which was to provide the name (tisane) for all drinks so prepared. Aromatic herbs were also employed in a fish sauce (g?ron) that was probably adopted later by the Romans for their garum.
The Etruscans (and in all likelihood the Latins) cultivated several species of cereals and also exploited woodland resources such as broad-leaved garlic (ramson), crow garlic, acorns, chestnuts, and beechnuts. Like other Mediterranean peoples, they associated such plants with woodland deities, giving pride of place to the myrtle and the laurel.
As the centuries passed, people devoted themselves more and more to non-essentials, seeking and demanding objects and products that would improve their daily lives. Tastes, smells and perfumes took on considerable significance at a time when direct relationship with others was the basic means of communication. Indeed, the improvement of food by adding spices, the search for products with stimulating qualities, the quest for perfumes designed to disguise natural body odors, were the motivating forces of the keen exchange between the zones of production and the consumers of such merchandise.
Among the earliest specialized traders in spices, herbs and perfumes were the Phoenicians. They used to transport very valuable goods on their ships.
Together with polychrome glass, much in demand in the Mediterranean, the speedy ships were laden with fish sauce (garum) and probably balms, scented oils, and essences, packed in small glass vessels. To expand this traffic the Phoenicians renounced the idea of territorial conquest and, instead of establishing a kingdom or an empire, set up colonies and trading stations, far less difficult to maintain. This strategy was readopted almost two thousand years later by the European traders. In this manner they not only supplied their own countries with foreign products but also conducted a two-way trade with other countries. In the remains of the Punic ship of Motya, near Marsala, 22 centuries after the wreck, some myrtle branches were recovered, the berries of which had been used for flavoring meat. There were also residues in containers of Cannabis indica which, when infused or mixed with bread, may have been intended to stimulate the rowing endeavors of the slaves.
From earliest times, the difficulty of preserving foodstuffs necessitated ample use of salt. It was this that probably originated the need to vary the taste of food with various flavors; salt itself was flavored with herbs and pungent seeds (sal conditus). Salt was also used for preserving condiments such as sauces. Soldiers were paid in salt (salarium) and aromatic herbs and pepper were added to make it taste more agreeable.
The Roman kitchen, especially under the Empire, was described by Apicius in the ten books of his work De re coquinaria. Bulbous vegetables such as onions, garlic, and leeks formed the basis of the Roman diet; in the modern kitchen these plants are treated mainly as flavorings but up to the present century they furnished an important supply of starch in the everyday diet. Wild vegetables such as burnet and cresses were sensibly used and brassicaceous plants like radish, horseradish and mustard were grown for their sharp taste, as well as mallow, eaten in salads.
Instead of carrots, which were not yet known in the varieties with which we are familiar today, white-rooted parsnips were cultivated, and other umbellifers such as lovage and alexanders (Smymium olusatrum), a kind of wild celery, were also popular. Herbs were important because they helped to preserve vegetables, whether cultivated or wild, which were usually covered with brine or vinegar (acetaria). Olives preserved in brine were given extra flavor with myrtle, bay, fennel or even lentisk (a common constituent of Mediterranean scrub vegetation). Coriander and cumin were used for conserving meat; and herbs served to improve the taste of such preserved foods.
Other ingredients included dill, aniseed, coriander and fennel; but far more important was lovage, nowadays confined to central European regions. Botanical identification of the laser or laserpicium (or silphium) is uncertain; this was a resinous product, obtained from a plant of the genus Ferula from Cyrenaica, the stems of which were lightly scraped; when it fell into disuse it was replaced by a Persian ferula or asafetida.