Native to the Maluku Islands, in Indonesia, which appropriately, were once known as the Spice Islands, cloves are the dried flower buds of an evergreen tree in the Myrtaceae family. Their English name is derived from clavus, the Latin word for nail, because of the flower’s long, narrow calyx or shaft and small head of sepals.
Cloves were first introduced to the Middle East and Europe well before the first century A.D., and along with pepper, nutmeg, and other spices, cloves were a valuable commodity of the Indian Ocean trade. Initially dominated by Muslim merchant sailors, control of the spice supplies passed on to the Portuguese, the Spanish, and eventually the Dutch by the 17th century. These monopolies were broken when the clove tree was introduced to Mauritius, Brazil, and the West Indies by the late 18th century.
Given the widespread demand for cloves, it is not surprising that they became an essential flavoring in numerous cuisines, although their potency makes it important to use this spice sparingly. In India, cloves are a fundamental ingredient in the seasoning mixture, garam masala, which is used in many spicy dishes. Cloves are also often used to flavor biryani, a dish with layers of rice and sauce. Spiced tea, masala chai, known in the United States simply as “chai,” also owes its flavor in part to the presence of cloves. Cloves are also an important spice for many European holiday dishes such as mulled wine, known in Germany as Glűhwein and in Scandinavia as Glőgg, in English dark fruitcake, in the German Pfeffernusse cookies, and everyone’s favorite gingerbread. In the U.S., Southern cooks often use whole cloves to stud baked hams.
The nail-like shape of the dried clove flower also makes it a natural spice to use in pomander balls with the pointy end driven into an orange to provide a pleasant aroma and an attractive decoration. Pomander balls were often hung in closets during the winter to keep clothes smelling fresh when it was too cold to open windows, and cloves are often mixed in to batches of potpourri as well.
If reading about all this tasty food has given you a toothache, cloves and oil of cloves are also a well-known analgesic used to ease dental pain.
Another perspective on cloves can be found at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/all-we-can-eat/i-spice/i-spice-cloves.html