Cloves are among the most distinctive and strongest of all spices. They’re the dried immature flower buds of a tree in the myrtle family, Syzygium aromaticum, which is native to a few islands in present-day Indonesia. Cloves were enjoyed in China 2,200 years ago, but weren’t much used in European foods until the Middle Ages. Today Indonesia and Madagascar are the biggest producers.
The flower buds of the clove tree are picked just before they open, and then dried for several days. Their distinctiveness results from a high content of the phenolic compound called eugenol, which has a unique aroma that is both somewhat sweet and very penetrating. Clove buds contain the highest concentration of aroma molecules of any spice. They are as much as 17% volatile chemicals by weight, most of this stored just under the surface of the elongated portion, in the flower cap, and in the delicate filaments of the stamens within. The oil is about 85% eugenol. Thanks mainly to eugenol, clove oil is good at suppressing microbes, and it temporarily numbs our nerve endings, properties that have led to its use in mouthwashes and dental products.