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December 12, 2018

Clove Cookies - A Christmas Herbal

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This year’s Christmas cookie is Clove Cookie.  

I have to admit, I’d never heard of this cookie before, and only just made it for this blog. However, it turned out to be very simple compared to the Pfeffernuuse and Springerle - and it was actually really good!  

Wet Ingredients

1 stick butter or 8 tablespoons or 1/2 cup, softened

1 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg

Dry Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Whisk the wet ingredients.  whisk the flour and cloves, then blend with the wet ingredients. Fold in the walnuts.  Grease a cookie sheet and spoon up tablespoon sized balls. Cooke at 350 F for 12 - 15 min.  

Cloves - Herbal Medicine

So, how do we understand Clove Cookies from an herbal perspective? Looking at the simplicity of the recipe, the only thing we have to consider is the Clove.

Clove is an interesting spice. It’s often forgotten or left out of recipes entirely (like nutmeg or allspice) because the amount of clove the recipe calls for is often fractionally small. Indeed, forgetting clove in a recipe generally isn’t a big deal and won’t prevent you from being able to make it, unlike if you were to forget cinnamon or ginger. After all, you have Cinnabons, but no “Clovabunns”, and you have fake cinnamon scented Christmas wreaths and decorations, but no fake clove-scented ones. So, it’s a little surprising to see a recipe that features only clove - and a lot of it. But, these are the interesting things you find when you go back to a time when flavors in food were much more varied, nuanced and interesting than the blah, generic sweet flavor that is most food today.  

Clove didn’t always take such a back seat to the more popular cinnamon and ginger. Indeed, clove was once much more valuable than cinnamon, as it grew only in the fabled Spice Islands (properly known as the Maluku Islands today) in Indonesia. Cinnamon, (Cassia, not true Ceylon cinnamon) on the other hand, could be found pretty much throughout Southeast Asia. (There’s even a Japanese Cinnamon that’s hardy to 10 F). Therefore, cinnamon was seen as far away as Egypt, as early as 2000 BC (used in recipes to embalm mummies!) and was well known throughout the middle east and ancient Rome.  

Clove’s scarcity made it valuable. Even though it was known in the West at least as far back as 1700 BC, the amount of Clove in circulation could not have reached the levels of Cinnamon. In fact, the first circumnavigation of the world by Ferdinand Magellan in 1522 was entirely for the purpose of finding a quicker and cheaper route to the Spice Islands of Indonesia to obtain clove and nutmeg. That fateful voyage represented an enormous cost and risk. The fleet consisted of five fully equipped Caravelles and 270 men. The cost of just one Caravelle at the time was 140 lb. of gold. At today’s current value, that would put each ship at $2,784,320. All told, that’s almost $14 million for a spice expedition. For a spice expedition. We should furthermore note this was a government sponsored spice expedition. When the expedition finally made it back to Spain it returned with only 18 men and one ship carrying 50 tons of cloves and nutmeg. With those 50 tons the expedition was considered a financial success. This means that 50 tons of spice were considered to be worth at least $14 million and the lives of 252 men.  

Clove clearly was quite valuable due to its rarity. However, rarity doesn’t drive price alone. It had to have a high degree of desirability, as well. Part of this was certainly as a way to flaunt wealth; if you could afford it, you were in the upper crusts of society. Ultimately, though its appeal was originally due to its culinary and medicinal usefulness. Let’s take a look at what those ancient medical uses were.

Just like with the previous herbal studies of Christmas cookies, we’ll take a look at the major herbal systems; Chinese herbal medicine, Islamic medicine, Ayurvedic and Medieval European herbal medicine. The consensus is that Clove is a warming, digestive herb, generally used to treat hiccup, cold-cramping, and digestive weakness (cold-type nausea, diarrhea, and lack of appetite).

Chinese Herbal Medicine

In Chinese Herbal Medicine, Clove 丁香 (literally fragrant nail) is indicated for “cold” in the stomach causing hiccup, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and lack of appetite. "Cold” here means that there are no signs of “heat”. In other words, the person doesn’t feel hot, isn’t excessively thirsty or thirsty for cold water, doesn’t have a sore throat, isn’t agitated, the abdominal cramping responds better to heat and pressure, and the diarrhea, if present, does not feel hot and does not have an overly offensive odor.  

The Rectification of the Meaning of Materia Medica describes its usage as, “warms the middle and eases the qi. Treats upper burner rebellion [causing] hiccough, eliminates Stomach cold diarrhea, [and any of] the five constraints affecting the seven emotions.” (Bensky 696)

Clove also has a secondary function of treating specific kinds of reproductive and urogenital disorders when used in the appropriate formulas, including; infertility, leukorrhea, and spermatorrhea.  

Islamic Medicine

Ibn Sina’s Cannon of Medicine ( القانون في الطب ) has only a little to say about clove, describing it as being used to strengthen the stomach and liver, and being useful in treating vomiting and nausea.  

Ayurvedic Medicine

I couldn’t find too much information on nutmeg when researching its use in Ayurvedic medicine, which I found to be quite surprising. It doesn’t appear to be discussed much until the Bhava Prakasha in the 16th century. It’s folk medicine usage mirrors that of the other major systems, being used for indigestion, loose stools, gas and nausea. One interesting usage that is unique is that clove oil is applied topically to treat headache.  

Medieval European Medicine

While the other herbal systems don’t have a tremendous amount to say about clove, when we enter into medieval Europe, things become a lot more interesting. Looking at the writings of our old friend Hildegard von Bingen in her Causae et Curae, we find two interesting entries:

[408] Wer an Schluckauf leidet, soll reichlich Zucker nehmen, ihn m warmem Wasser auflösen und dieses Wasser warm trinken, da die  Wärme des Zuckers mit der Milde des erwärmten Wassers die Trockenheit, die die Kälte des Schluckaufs dem Menschen bringt, befeuchtet. Warmes Wasser passt zu [dieser] Krankheit mehr als Wein, weil dieses Wasser inild ist, der Wein aber kräftig. Er soll aber auch trockenen Zucker essen und oft nüchtern Gewürznelke kauen; Zitwer aber soll er oft nach dem Frühstück essen, und das soll er einen Monat lang tun. Zucker vermindert nämlich die Trockenheit dieses Menschen, die Wärme der Gewürznelke durchdringt den Menschen und macht ihn warm, wenn er nüchtern ist. Die Wärme des zhwers aber ist stark und vertreibt die Kälte des erwähnten Übels; und das tut sie bei einem Menschen, der gefrühstückt hat, denn wenn er nüchtern wäre, würde ihm die Kraft dieses Zitwers schaden. Und diese [Mittel] soll der Mensch einen Monat lang gebrauchen, damit er umso mehr von ihnen gekräftigt wird. (206-207)


Whoever suffers from hiccups should take plentiful amounts of sugar, dissolve it in warm water and drink it, for the warmth of the sugar and the mildness of the warmed water moistens the dryness that the coldness the of the hiccups causes to a person. Warm water is better in this illness than wine, because water is mild, whereas wine is strong. One should also eat dry sugar and chew cloves on an empty stomach. One should also eat white turmeric often after breakfast, and one should do this for a month long. Sugar reduces mainly the dryness of a person, the warmth of the cloves permeates the person and makes one warm, when one has an empty stomach. The warmth of the white turmeric is strong and expels the cold of the aforementioned evils; and if one were to eat white turmeric on an empty stomach instead of after breakfast, the strength of the white turmeric would be damaging. And one should use this method for a month long, so that one is greatly strengthened by it.  

Of course, this was a time when sugar wasn’t plentiful at all, and simply didn’t exist as we know it today. So, we have to take with a grain of salt what “plentiful” amounts of sugar actually means in this context. However, we again see clove used for hiccups, just like in the Chinese medicine usage.  

Moving on:

[447] Wer am dreittäglichen Fieber leidet, nehme “hun”, Kleinen Huflattich im gleich Gewicht wie “hun” und dreimal so viel Rettich wie von den beiden zusammen und koche das in Wein und seihe es durch ein Tuch. Er nehme auch Gewürznelken, die doppelte Menge Galgant und ein Drittel von diesen beiden Ingwer, mache das zu Pulver und bereite daraus mit dem erwähnten Wein, den man durch ein Tuch geseiht hat, einen reinen Trank. Diesen soll man genau im Fieberanfall und an den folgenden neun Tagen nutzen, um vollsndiger gebessert zu werden. Denn die Wärme von “hun” und die Kälte des Kleinen Huflattichs, mit der Wärme von Rettich und der Wärme der Gewürznelke und der Wärme des Galgants und mit der guten Wärme des Ingwers gemischt und im Trank genommen, vertreiben das erwähnte Fieber. (226-227)


Whoever suffers from a three day fever should take hun*, small Coltsfoot in the same weight as the hun, and three times as much radish as the two together and cook it all in wine and strain it through a cloth. Also take cloves, a doubled amount of galangal, and three times as much ginger as the cloves and galangal together, powder this and with the warmed wine that was strained through the cloth, make a pure drink. This one should take when one has a fever and also for the following nine days in order to get completely better. For the warmth of the “hun” and the cold of the coltsfoot mixes with the warmth of the the radish, clove, galangal and ginger in the warm wine and when taken expels the aforementioned fever.  

*Nobody knows exactly what hun is. Some translators claim this is Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita), however it seems that hun could perhaps refer to several different plants.  

Both of these recipes actually sound pretty good. Well, except for the radish part. The first recipe actually is pretty much the same as the cookie recipe above - clove plus sugar. The second recipe is similar to formulas that can be found in Chinese medicine.  

As you can see looking at all the different herbal systems, everybody is pretty much on the same page. Clove is a valuable digestive spice used to address many different presentations for weak digestion.

So the next time you’re doing some baking, don’t take clove for granted. Think of how this spice has been used throughout the ages and the lengths people used to have to go through to get it. Next time is calls for it in a recipe, add a pinch extra!