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Exploring Cloves: The Christmas Spice Adds a Touch of Heat to Every Meal

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Cloves, cinnamon, and star anise are components of a spice blend called Chinese Five Spice.

Cloves, cinnamon, and star anise are components of a spice blend called Chinese Five Spice.

What You Will Find in This Article

  • Introduction
    • The “Christmas Spice”
    • What Are Cloves?
    • Why Is This Hot Spice so “Hot”?
  • The History
    • Greed, Corruption, Sorrow, and Slaughter
    • OK, So What About the Monarch?
    • Map
  • How to Use Cloves
  • Recipes
    • Beverage
    • Bread
    • Soup
    • Main Dish

The "Christmas" Spice

Baked ham. Pumpkin pie. Mulled wine. Warm, indulgent, comfort foods. What unites them all? Obviously, they are foods that we eat during the Christmas holidays.

And . . . they all contain cloves—that super-strong, hot-sweet spice.

What Are Cloves?

Cloves are the fruit of unopened flower buds of a tropical evergreen. The tree (Syzygium aromaticum) is native to Indonesia, but today is grown in other places including Sumatra, India, Brazil, Jamaica, and the West Indies. It reaches heights of at least 30 feet and produces white bell-shaped flowers which turn pink as they mature. The flower buds are hand-picked just before the flowers open. These harvested buds are then sun-dried, which turns then to a dark brown.

One tree can yield up to 40 pounds of dried cloves! The name given this spice comes from the Latin word “clavus,” meaning nail, and that definitely describes its shape.



Why Is This Hot Spice so "Hot"?

Why is it that the use of cloves seems to reach a frenzied peak during the holidays?

Perhaps the phenomenon traces back to the days when all spices were scarce—and expensive—in Europe. Back then, cloves were a sign of indulgence, a show of wealth. Or a rare prize, reserved for special occasions, like Christmas.

Indeed, cloves provide a flavor boost to rich, hearty winter foods, so it’s no wonder that they have become the “Christmas spice." They have a warm, bold aroma and a sharp, almost hot flavor which is tempered by cooking.

Cloves can be purchased ground or whole to flavor breads, cakes, and cookies, and traditionally wind up in wassail bowls, hot mulled cider, fruitcakes, plum pudding, mincemeat pie, and more.

Greed, Corruption, Sorrow, and Slaughter

Like many spices, the history of cloves goes back many centuries. It is thought that the Chinese were the first to discover the Indonesian islands called the Moluccas. They returned home with cloves, which were used in pharmaceuticals, and as a breath freshener. Legend tells that one was required to chew cloves prior to having an audience with the Emperor, lest he be offended with bad breath.

Arab traders found the Moluccas and centuries later the ships of Magellan embarked on a trip around the world, finding the Moluccas enroute. Magellan's fleet returned to Spain in 1522, loaded with cloves and nutmeg; the value of the cargo supported the cost of the voyage many times over.



Cloves were in big demand in Europe to preserve meat, and gross profit margins for those who bought it supposedly could reach 2,000%. This made the trade worth fighting over, and several European nations did just that. The Portuguese established the first monopoly but were pushed out in 1605 by Dutch explorers who discovered their own route to the Moluccas Islands.

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In their zeal to control the clove industry, lords of the Dutch East India Company destroyed clove trees growing anywhere outside of their control. Natives of the Molucca Islands believed that they had a spiritual connection with the clove trees; it was part of their tradition to plant one tree for each child born, and the fate of the child was then linked to the life (and death) of the tree. In 1816 the natives revolted against the Dutch in a bloody battle.

One might say that Divine providence stepped in. We now know that decades earlier a French missionary had managed to smuggle clove seeds to Zanzibar and Mauritius. With that, world production of clove spice rose—and with the increase in supply, prices plummeted. Eventually, the cost of wars, blockades, and battles with the native population became too costly; the 200-year monopoly of the clove spice trade ended in bankruptcy for the East India Company.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The quest for cloves is one of those events that have shaped world history; they spurred expeditions, created monopolies, generated fantastic wealth, and created great suffering.

How to Use Cloves

There is a common expression, "a little says a lot." That is certainly the case with cloves. Measure carefully when adding cloves to baked goods. Whole cloves are used in many recipes, but please be sure to remove them before serving.


Cinnamon Clove Syrup

This spicy syrup adds a bit of heat to cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks alike, or drizzle over ice cream. Keeps stored in the refrigerator for several weeks.

Yield: About 1 cup


  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves


  1. Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan.
  2. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved.
  3. Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes.
  4. Allow to cool and then strain to remove the whole spices.
  5. Pour the syrup into a glass container with a secure cover. Keep refrigerated.

Pumpkin Spice Scones


  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • 6 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin puree (not canned pumpkin pie filling)
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 pinch each of nutmeg, ginger, and cloves


  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. In a large mixing bowl whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger.
  4. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
  5. In a separate bowl, mix together the pumpkin, milk, and egg. Add the pumpkin mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix until just combined.
  6. Pat the dough out on a lightly floured surface to form a rectangle that is roughly 4 inches by 12 inches. Cut the dough into thirds to form three 4-inch by 4-inch squares, then cut an X in each of the squares to form 4 triangular scones.
  7. Move the scones to the prepared baking sheet and bake 14-16 minutes, or until lightly browned on the bottom. Remove from the oven and let cool.

While the scones are cooling, make the spiced glaze. Whisk together the powdered sugar, milk, and spices. Drizzle the spiced glaze over the scones.

pumpkin soup with honey and cloves

pumpkin soup with honey and cloves

Pumpkin Soup With Honey and Cloves

This pumpkin soup is creamy and spicy and full of wonderful vegetables. This recipe makes enough for 8 servings and can be ready in about 30 minutes.

red lentil soup with cloves

red lentil soup with cloves

Red Lentil Soup With Cloves

Red lentils provide hearty fiber, ginger and cloves offer a subtle touch of heat, and homemade croutons are buttery and crunchy.

smoked ginger chicken with cloves

smoked ginger chicken with cloves

Smoked Ginger Chicken With Cloves

Save this recipe for an outdoor barbecue. This chicken dish is prepared on the grill. Whole spices (including cloves) are soaked and spread over the hot coals. The fragrance and flavor permeate the moist meat and crispy chicken skin.

Click on the link above to not only get the recipe but watch Bobby Flay of the Food Network demonstrate the creation in a video.

golden clove glazed ham

golden clove glazed ham

golden clove glazed ham

golden clove glazed ham

Golden Clove Glazed Ham

I chose this recipe because it features both whole and ground cloves. This is the ham of Norman Rockwell paintings. A ready-to-eat ham is studded with whole cloves and baked to perfect succulence. In the last 30 minutes, the meat is basted with a glaze of honey, brown sugar, and ground cloves. Perfection.

© 2015 Linda Lum

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