Spices and herbs, aromatic and pungent elements used to flavour foods, have been at the crux of many wars, colonial explorations, dynasties and cultures. In 300 BCE, the Romans took control of the spice trade from the Arabs. From 1200 to 1500 CE, Europeans began exploring routes to India to gain control of the lucrative spice trade, and from the 15th to 17th centuries, hostilities over who controlled the trade ended up in a full-fledged Spice War between the Portuguese, Dutch and English. Control of food-enhancing products such as saffron and cardamom has played a large role in human history, which is still reflected in the high cost of certain herbs and spices.
Cardamom is one of the most expensive spices because of its labour intensive harvesting process. Cardamom typically comes from India or Guatemala, and is extracted from the flowers of tall plants that flower for eight to nine months each year. The pod that contains the cardamom seeds must be picked when three-quarters ripe. Half the world's cardamom is consumed by the Eastern European and Scandinavian cultures combined.
Cordyceps, a rare herb found in Asian cultures, has been used for spiritual and culinary practices for thousands of years. In traditional Chinese medicine, the herb is believed to restore energy, balance, mental health and strength, as well as enhance sexual function. It once grew only in remote parts of China and other Eastern countries, so it was very costly to obtain. As of April 2011, however, people have discovered how to grow Cordyceps in other areas, making it slightly less expensive.
Vanilla, the second most expensive spice in the world, comes from vanilla beans, which take up to nine months to grow. These beans must be picked one by one, which is an extremely labour intensive process. Picking the beans too early can ruin the taste and picking them too late can make them split open, which spoils the roasting process. After the beans are picked, they must undergo a long process of curing, drying, roasting, cleaning and sweating, which is the process of heating and toasting the beans to allow extraction of the vanilla juices.
Saffron is the world's most expensive spice. It grows from yellow-orange stigmas contained within a small purple crocus. Stigmas are the small, reddish fibres and each flower only contains three. One ounce of saffron equals approximately 14,000 saffron threads. These must be handpicked and the spice is sold as threads or in powdered form.