In Medieval Britain and for many years after spices from around the world were sought after by the rich. Spice traders would risk their lives and pay high prices to bring back spices from around the world. The rich would pay a huge sum for them not just because they made their food taste better but because having and using these spices bought them prestige. If you want to understand how much some of these spices cost them, you can compare them to animals. A sheep would buy you a pound of ginger, a cow two pounds of mace, a pound of saffron, a horse and a pound of nutmeg would be the worth of 7 fat oxen! The working man could not afford to buy spices that came from abroad.
As countries took colonies and sea transportation became quicker and more reliable the cost of foreign herbs and spices came down drastically. Still it wasn’t till after World War Two that people sought out tastes from around the world. As Britain for instance opened its gates to immigrants fleeing Europe and people coming from their Commonwealth, many people came and brought their cultures and food with them. Some even opened shops and restaurants selling their home cuisine. The locals slowly took on a taste for foreign cuisine and started to try to replicate them in their own kitchens. Sourcing the necessary herbs and spices became easier and cheaper as demand increased.
Most spices need semi-tropical conditions to grow. Therefore not many herbs or spices come from Europe. The most common ones grown in Europe and are used are garlic, chives and watercress.
In the Mediterranean many fragrant herbs grow in the warm climate. The common ones are saffron, thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, fennel, hyssop and possibly olive. When we think of Mediterranean cuisine these flavors really come out.
Some of the most important herbs and spices actually stem from Central and West Asia. The bay leaf, pepper, tarragon, poppy, rose and fenugreek. Of course some of these may have originated elsewhere and became transplanted in the area.
South and South East Asia are also home to some important herbs and spices. They include: black pepper, cinnamon, cumin cardamom, curry, ginger, lemongrass and turmeric. Many of these feature very heavily in Indian cooking and give great color and a spicy taste.
As for America there are many herbs and spices grown there but as the known history of the area does not go back very far, it is difficult to know what is native to the area.
Now that we have learned to enjoy tastes from around the world we have started to insist that, for maximum taste and flavor, the products we buy are of the highest quality and as fresh as can be. Companies such as Neptune Spices have been trading spices, manufacturing and packing them for many years and take pride in procuring only the best quality herbs and spices.