Every time I’ve walked into my pantry for the past few months I have been beguiled by the rich, evocative aroma of cloves. There aren’t a lot of clove trees around Ubud. Wayan Manis’ mother planted one about 15 years ago just for the hell of it, and now harvests eight to ten kilograms a year. I help the family to sell as much as I can, but it’s a glut on the market and inevitably a big sack remains in the pantry, perfuming the air.

Cloves have been around for a long time. They’ve been found in a ceramic jar in Syria which was dated to around 1720 BCE. A Chinese leader 2000 years ago demanded that people around him chew cloves to sweeten the breath. Muslim merchants traded them in the MiddleAges.  So ancient trading routes can be traced by the movement of cloves and other commodities from a few islands in Maluku, which was the only place they grew at that time, around what was then the known world.

Indian and Arab traders brought cloves, cinnamon, black pepper and other spices to the Middle East; Europeans first encountered spices there during the Crusades and brought them home as expensive treasures. Portuguese explorers set off in search of their origin and opened routes from India through to the Malukus in eastern Indonesia.

The fabled Spice Islands became the epicentre of vicious trade wars between the Portuguese, English and Dutch as they competed for the hugely profitable spice trade. The Dutch won, and dominated the spice trade from the early 17th century until  Indonesian independence following World War Two.

Cloves are the dried unopened flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum, a tall evergreen tree in the myrtle family. The name comes from the French ‘clou’ (nail). These days most of Bali’s cloves are grown in Munduk and Jembrana.   Clove trees were first planted in Munduk about 45 years ago and now blanket the slopes of Gunung Lesung and Gunung Sangiyang.  In harvest season the cool mountain air is intoxicatingly fragrant with the scent of clove oil from the fallen leaves.

Cloves are labour-intensive and dangerous to produce.  Men climb frail ladders to pick the clove flower buds singly before they open, when they have just turned pink. Falls from the flimsy ladders are not uncommon. Whole families migrate from Karangasam to harvest the crop. All the family members, including the children, spend the nights breaking the tops off the buds that were harvested that day before laying them out in the sun to dry.

But this year there will be no cloves from Munduk. The trees failed to set flowers, probably because of the continuous rains over the past few months.  This will have a disastrous financial impact on the smallholders who rely on the income from cloves. Although coffee and cocoa are also grown on the mountainsides, cloves are by far the most lucrative crop.  With about 600 hectares in clove production and with each hectare usually producing about 700 kilograms of cloves, Munduk’s farmers will lose the income from 420,000 kilograms of cloves this year. In neighbouring Jembrana, where farmers also replanted rice fields with clove trees, this year’s crop has also failed.

Cloves are chemically and medically interesting. Several bioactive compounds have been isolated from clove extracts, including flavonoids, hexane, methylene chloride, ethanol, thymol, eugenol and benzene. These biochemicals have   antioxidant, hepato-protective, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Cloves are the richest plant source of the potent chemical compound eugenol, with clove oil containing between 80 to 95 percent eugenol. Oil of cloves or eugenol is commonly used by dentists because it’s antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and mildly anesthetic. Studies show that eugenolfights  bacteria and inhibits the growth of many fungi, including Candida albicans, the pathogen responsible for most human yeast infections. Preliminary research also shows that eugenol is a very powerful fat-soluble antioxidant, inhibiting the accumulation of fat peroxide products in red blood cells and maintaining the activities of the body’s antioxidant enzymes at normal levels.

In Chinese and Moghul medicine, cloves were considered to possess aphrodisiac properties. The eugenol in clove oil   was recently tested as an aphrodisiac on rats, which hardly require assistance in that department. You will be intrigued to learn that ‘oral administration of a 50% ethanol extract significantly increased mounting frequency, intromission frequency and erections as well as significant reduction in the post-ejaculatory interval.’ But before you try this at home, be aware that ingesting clove oil may cause gastric ulceration.

The Journal of Immunotoxicology  published a study proving that the eugenol in clove oil is a powerful anti-inflammatory.  Low doses of eugenol can protect the liver against disease and  reverse the inflammation and cellular oxidation which causes aging.  It was also observed that taking large doses internally could harm the digestive lining and externally can irritate sensitive skin, so use well diluted with a carrier oil externally and very cautiously internally.

The leaves of the clove tree contain up to 60% clove oil. In Bali the fallen leaves are gathered and sold by the sack to be distilled into clove oil, much of which is used by the domestic spa industry. Ground cloves are also a very potent anti-oxident, second only to raw sumac bran. Per gram, cloves contain thirty times more  anti-oxidants than  blueberries.

Cloves are not much used in Indonesian cuisine.  When a westerner thinks of cloves, festive foods like baked ham and Christmas cake spring to mind.  But an Indonesian usually associates cloves with kretek, the spicy, wickedly strong and mildly narcotic cigarettes smoked with great enthusiasm all over the archipelago.

Around two thirds of Indonesian men smoke and about 85% of these prefer kretek to ‘white’ cigarettes.  Kretek contain 70% tobacco,  and30% ground cloves and clove oil as well as other additives. Indonesia’s Industry Ministry said it expects the nation’s cigarette production to rise to 524 billion cigarettes by 2020.

So the domestic market for cloves is certain to remain strong. Of course, cigarette smoke inhaled by active smokers contains about 4,000 chemicals and is associated with at least 25 diseases in the human body.  But it seems that the vast profits of the cigarette market far outweigh heath concerns. According to a study published by the US National Library of Medicine, clove cigarettes deliver more nicotine, carbon monoxide and tar than conventional cigarettes.

Ironically, kretek were first marketed as a medicinal product. The creator of kretek was Haji Jamhari, a native of Central Java in the late 19th century. Jamhari attempted to reduce chronic chest pain by rubbing clove oil on his chest. Seeking a means of a deeper relief, he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes of tobacco, dried clove buds and rubber tree sap wrapped in a dried banana leaf. According to the story, his asthma and chest pains vanished immediately. Word of Jamhari’s cure spread rapidly among his neighbors, and the product soon became available in pharmacies as rokok cengkeh (clove cigarettes). Kreteks became widely popular.

Commercial manufacture started in earnest in the 1930s.  Most of Bali’s clove crop is sold directly to cigarette manufacturers in Java.

Given the failure of this year’s crop, the value of that sack of fragrant cloves in my pantry should start escalating soon.  Wayan Manis is open to offers.


Copyright © 2017 Greenspeak

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