McCormick’s chief spice buyer, Al Goetze, travels to exotic ports-of-call, trekking across varied terrain in search of the finest herbs and spices. In this journal entry, Al invites us inside his recent trip to Indonesia, where he inspected the clove crop.

One of the things I find so fascinating about spices is the fact that they come from all parts of the plant or tree – roots, bark, leaves, fruit, flowers, and seeds. Cloves (Syzgium aromaticum) are the immature flower buds of a tropical tree in the evergreen family that is grown in Indonesia, Madagascar, Zanzibar, India, Brazil, and other countries. My focus this trip is Indonesia, the largest grower and consumer of cloves.

In ancient history, the trading world sought access to a cluster of islands in the Molucca Sea, which were renowned for their spices – in particular, cloves and nutmeg. Though war and political unrest controlled this region for hundreds of years, today the islands are part of Indonesia. My port-of-call was a town called Larompong, located on the southern half of Sulawesi Island, in the heart of a major clove growing area.

Buyung, my local business associate, met me at the port and escorted me to observe the clove harvest. We drove for several hours through the lush, green countryside. Magnificent volcanic mountains provided a picturesque backdrop for our trek.

During the drive, Buyung briefed me on last year’s prosperous crop and this surprising tidbit: the Indonesian clove cigarette industry is the single largest user of cloves in the world, accounting for about 90 percent of all production.

Arriving in the first farming village, we noticed clove trees interspersed throughout the hillsides and property borders. Similar to allspice trees, most parts of the clove tree exude some degree of aroma and flavor, though the flower buds are most potent. Clove trees can live 100 years and reach heights of 75 - 90 feet. Many of the larger trees have permanent bamboo scaffolding built around them to facilitate access to the flower buds.

Cloves are an annual crop, and similar to cinnamon, its farmers view it as a long-term investment. The farmer cultivates, and carefully monitors, the crop from the sapling stage. It takes years for farmers to realize the fruits of their labor. Typically, saplings don’t even generate flowers for the first five years of their life cycle. Once a tree has reached maturity, following the monsoon season, flower buds rapidly develop in size and color. They change from green to pale yellow to pink, and from there, quickly turn red, indicating full maturity. It is critical to harvest the buds just prior to this bright red stage, when they are at peak flavor and aroma. The harvest usually lasts two to three months.

When the buds are ready to be picked, farmers manually break them off, along with the stems and leaves. They then separate the buds, by hand, from the stems and spread them in yards to sun dry for about a week. This is how the cloves achieve the characteristic dark brown color we’ve all come to recognize. Dried cloves are handled very gently to help prevent the round bud head from breaking off from the base. At McCormick, all dried cloves are manually inspected, one at a time, to insure the highest quality.

The flavor of cloves is strong, pungent and sweet – almost hot. Because of their perceived medicinal properties, they have been used throughout history as a breath freshener and also to provide relief from toothaches.

During the spring months, one of the best ways to enjoy the flavor of cloves is in a traditional glazed ham. Clove is also seeing a resurgence in popularity as a key ingredient in one of the trendiest flavors of the moment – chai. I’ve recently discovered a simple chai vinagrette that is a delicious accompaniment to salads and a unique way to enjoy this fragrant spice.

The distinctive flavor of cloves combines with cardamom, cinnamon and white pepper in a chai vinaigrette — the perfect way to dress up this sensational salad, creating a palette as bright as the season itself.