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Epices et Aromatiques

Je dis épices plutôt que «substances aromatiques», pour conserver à aromatiques son sens strict dans la pharmacie ayurvédique où l'on distingue les Aromatiques, les Piquantes et les Amères. Je dirai donc que les épices sont coordonnées entre elles dans un système de classification à facettes. C'est là l'essentiel des savoirs locaux que les autorités politiques protègent en Inde en matière d'agronomie, horticulture, pesticides d'origine végétale, parfumerie et pharmacie.

Les substances aromatiques font système — l'humorisme — et les savoirs locaux à leur sujet ne sont pas simplement l'accumulation de connaissances empiriques telles que «le neem est un bon vermifuge», «le curcuma est un désinfectant», «la zédoaire a des propriétés antispasmodiques», etc. J'étudie ce système dans les jardins d'épices.

Spices, a tentative definition

Traduit du Discours des remèdes

It would be fair enough to say that all the fragrances of plants imported from the East are spices. This word traditionally applies to vegetal substances, either aromatic or pungent, that are generally the produces from tropical plants, and the products of trade with the East Indies. In Europe as well as in the East, spices have been used in three domains: cuisine, perfumery and pharmacy. They are at the same time condiments, fragrances and drugs with therapeutical properties—eg., disinfectants (like sandalwood), analgesics (like eaglewood), or psychotropics (like incense). Each spice plays several roles at the same time; saffron, for example, serves simultaneously as condiment, colouring agent, disinfectant and stimulant. Fragrance is only one property among others, since these odorous substances have also physiological and psychological effects.

"Spices today connote primarily condiments in food. In the mind of classical authors they included ingredients in oinments, perfume-powders, cosmetics, incense, and drugs, and were summarized by them under the term aromata for perfumes, thumiamata for incense, and condimenta for preservatives, in embalming for instance, and as ingredients in food and wine. As theriaca they formed the substance of antidotes against poison. There was no single word for spices as ingredients in drugs, but in this role they permeated almost the whole range of remedies, antidotes, love philtres, and charms. As anodynes they provided some form of anaesthesia in ancient surgery." J. Innes Miller, The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire 29 B.C. to A.D. 641, Oxford, Clarendon, 1969, p. 2.

The stocklist should not be limited to the medicinal simples (herbs, seeds, roots, leaves, etc.); it should also include among spices the resinous gums and aromatic wood. European trade in groceries and perfumes covers a restricted number of spices. But locally, in South Asia, certain spices which have never come into the stream of international exchanges are no less prized for that reason. Take for example the aromatic seeds of Psoralea corylifolia, which give an oil efficacious against discoloured spots on the skin. They form part of the composition of ointments which count simultaneously as perfumes and medicines. They might be industrially exploited in future. Spices which, for the ethnobotanist, comprise about one hundred plants, have not yet given away all their saps to the modern consumer.

A preliminary list of some English names to mark out this object would include vegetal substances fixed in their role as spices by commercial tradition. Seeds: cardamom, cumin, pepper. Roots: acorus, costus, turmeric, ginger, nard. Leaves: betel, malabathrum. Flowers: cloves, saffron. Nuts: areca, nutmeg. Barks: cinnamon, neem or margosa. Resinous gums: aloe, bdellium, incense, myrrh. To include incense and myrrh is already to enlarge the notion of spices. But even more, if it is agreed to glide from a purely commercially accepted notion of spices to an ethnographically significant one, Aromatic woods have to be added: eaglewood, sandal. Finally, the definition ascribed to them in dictionaries when dealing with "aromatic or pungent" substances might appear equivocal and incomplete.

From the point of view of the indigenous materia medica, a number of medicinal plants whose basic property is bitterness but which are also aromatic or pungent, have to be counted among the spices. The typical example is vetiver, the South Indian aromatic root cultivated for its aroma. Before becoming an ingredient of lotions, it has been a reality of daily life in India. Dry vetiver roots were used in mats, screens and fans which were sprinkled with water, and more recently with an electric fan, to create a scented and refreshing air current. In addition to its scent, vetiver also tastes good, and it used to be taken orally as a powder or as an infusion for its anti-febrile and digestive properties, which brings it closer to spices. Let us admit that bitter things like vetiver and nut grass [Cyperus rotundus]—another root used in perfumery—are not exactly spices. But all the same, they cannot be dissociated from spices. The division of perfume plants into the Aromatic, the Bitter and the Pungent makes a system. Indeed, a division of this kind is seen in the traditional culture of South Asia, consequently yielding a theory of spices, in relation to the three humours of Hindu medicine: wind, bile and phlegm.