Must have spices for the festive period

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Who doesn’t love the tantalising smell of a nutmeg-infused mulled wine, cloves decorating a juicy orange or a steaming mug of cinnamon-topped hot chocolate at Christmas time? 

Spices play an essential part in our festive celebrations, and the heady aromas conjure up memories and stories shared of festive times gone by. 

So, whilst we put another batch of oozy, sweet and sticky-scented mince pies in the oven, we look at the history behind our favourite Christmas spices and why aroma memories help us to remember those yesteryear yuletides.

The spice trail to Christmas

For centuries, the spice trail was the Amazon Prime of commerce. It was a network of global trade routes that sprang up to transport cinnamon, pepper, cloves and other spices across the globe. These spices have been used for centuries by local people as medicine, in rituals, and, of course, during cooking. 

With the onset of worldwide exploration, a small amount of spice began to find itself in the possession of the wealthiest and most influential people. Many were willing to pay through the nose as demand quickly outstripped supply. Romans would trade gold bars for a sprinkle of pepper. In Henry VIII’s court, Cardinal Wolsey carried oranges infused with cloves to cover up the fragrant odours of the lawyers and plaintiffs that crowded Westminster Hall. In the Elizabethan era, we see evidence of spices being used in feasts as playwright Thomas Dekker describes the decadence of stuffed boars’ heads filled with intoxicating tastes and smells.

Today, what better feast is there than a Christmas one? Our spreads might not contain the heads of wild boars, but the use of spice – one a commodity that screamed wealth – has remained. 

Here are some of our favourites:


This sweet, warm spice found its way into mulled wines and ales in medieval Europe, elevating the flavours and offering a comforting essence perfect for winter gatherings.


With its rich, earthy notes, nutmeg symbolises wealth in the Elizabethan era, gracing tables in festive pies and puddings, notably the iconic mince pie.


Originating from Indonesia, cloves offer intense flavour and preservative properties. Used in pickling, meat preservation, and infusing drinks, they added a distinct warmth to festive beverages.

Mulled wine

The origins of mulled wine trace back to ancient Rome, where spiced wine was a remedy for winter ailments. Over time, this practice evolved across Europe, culminating in the delightful mulled wine enjoyed today. Cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg enhanced the taste and symbolised opulence during festive revelries.

The art of mulling involves gently heating red wine with spices, citrus fruits, and a touch of sweetness, allowing flavours to fuse into a soul-warming elixir. Its popularity has soared, becoming a cherished tradition during winter festivities, fostering communal warmth and joyous gatherings.

The olfactory connection

Understanding the significance of spices during Christmas entails delving into the science of scent. The olfactory bulb, situated alongside the hippocampus in the brain, plays a pivotal role in processing smells. Neuroscientists link the hippocampus to creating new memories, underscoring the profound connection between scent and cherished reminiscences.

As the holiday season unfolds, these spices not only tantalise our taste buds but also evoke the essence of cherished traditions, infusing Christmas with an aromatic tapestry that transcends time.

Looking to add some spice into your life?

At Hey Fresto!, our meals are perfectly balanced with a range of herbs and spices to deliver ready meals that keep you coming back for more. Take a look at our range of frozen meals.