The Clove we use in cooking is the unopened bud of a fragrant, evergreen tree (Eugenia caryophyllata, Family: Myrtaceae or myrtle), that European explorer-traders first discovered growing in the Moluccas or Spice Islands.
There it was the custom to mark the birth of every child by the planting of a clove tree. lf the tree thrived, the child prospered. The tree bears in its eleventh year, and continues to yield a biannual harvest (July-October and December-January) for as long as 80 to 100 years. To do well, the clove tree must be near the sea. Two of its happiest locations are the sister islands of Zanzibar and Pemba in the Indian Ocean where it was introduced in the nineteenth century. Visitors to The Arabian Night's island of Zanzibar have noted that the aromatic scent of cloves pervades the air. Today about 80 per cent of the world's cloves come from these islands.
The flowers of the clove tree grow in bunches at the end of the branches. For highest quality, they must be harvested when the calyx has turned a rosy pink and before it has opened and been fertilized. Whole families join in harvesting bud clusters which are placed on mats, then separated and sun-dried for several days. During that time the characteristic dark, red-brown color develops. The best cloves are fat, dark and so filled with oil that the scratch of a fingernail releases it.
It is easy to see why the Dutch called the clove kruidnaigel or "spice nail"; each looks like a small, rough, round-headed nail. Camel caravans loaded with spices from the mysterious East brought cloves within reach of European markets as early as the fourth century; but for hundreds of years they remained too costly for any but the rich.
The warmly aromatic fragrance of cloves, whole or ground, is associated with almost every type of food, both festive and everyday. Cloves are necessary for pomanders and included in most potpourri recipes. Some of us may remember oil of cloves applied to an aching tooth. This essential oil continues to be important in medicine.