Native to the eastern Indonesian islands known as the Moluccas or “Spice Islands,” cloves are the dried, unopened buds of a tropical evergreen. Our cloves come from Madagascar, now one of the world’s major producers.
Cloves are picked by hand when they begin turning from green to a shade of brilliant pink. They are then dried and turn the dark brown color consumers are familiar with. The first harvest takes place when the trees are six to eight years old and continues up to 50 years, with some trees reported as living as long as 150 years. The trees are surprisingly sensitive and rough handling during a harvest can decrease yields for the following years.
Cloves are a very strong, aromatic spice with a hot, pungent taste. Their flavor can quickly overwhelm a dish, but when used in moderation, cloves bring a pleasant, palate-cleansing freshness and sweet spicy flavor to foods. In fact, cloves were probably the first form of breath freshener, as they were used by Chinese courtiers during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) to sweeten their breath when addressing the emperor.
Cloves are a common ingredient in mulling and pickling spices, as well as Pumpkin Pie Spice, Chinese Five Spice and Garam Masala. They are most often paired with nutmeg and cinnamon in sweet dishes, but are gaining popularity in savory dishes such as slow-cooked meats, stews and rice dishes.