Ever think about cloves? Most people don't. Yet they are there at every Motzei Shabbat Havdala ceremony, and oil of cloves is still the dominant smell in many a dentist's office. The English name is derived from the Latin clavus, meaning "nail." But why add them to foods? In addition to their flavor and scent, cloves contain far more health benefits than one would imagine, making it well worth our while to get to know cloves and use them in the kitchen. Take eugenol for example. The primary component of cloves' volatile oils, eugenol functions as an anti-inflammatory, and eugenol extracts of cloves have often been used in dentistry in conjunction with fillings, root canal therapy, and general gum pain, since it is a mild anesthetic and antibacterial agent. That's the reason that clove oil is sometimes added to natural over-the-counter sore-throat sprays and mouth washes. Cloves also contain a variety of flavonoids, including kaempferol and rhamnetin, which also contribute to their anti-inflammatory (and antioxidant) properties, as well as manganese, vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and magnesium. They have active components studied in connection with preventing toxicity from environmental pollutants, digestive tract cancers and joint inflammation. Cloves are native to the Moluccas, the Spice Islands of Indonesia, and have been used in Asia for the last 2,000 years. Chinese courtiers dating back to 200 BCE would keep them in their mouths in order to freshen their breath when addressing the emperor so as to not offend him. Arab traders brought cloves to Europe around the fourth century, although they did not come into widespread use until the Middle Ages, when they were used to make questionable meats safer (because they killed germs) and more palatable. During the Great Plague (also known as the Black Plague) of 1348-1350, cloves were stuck into fruits by those that could afford them, and held to the face when going outdoors to help avoid contagion. Those same clove-studded fruits are the origin of the pomander, hung by a ribbon in many homes and closets, especially around Christmastime. Today they are grown in Zanzibar, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and India, among other place. Cloves are actually the unopened pink flower buds of the evergreen clove tree, with a tapered stem that makes them look like nails when dried till brown. I have both whole and powdered cloves at home, but I tend to use the whole form much more often. When selecting cloves, look for well-shaped "nails" since these are of better quality than the broken ones. Store them in a tightly sealed glass jar, in a cabinet away from direct sunlight or in the refrigerator. The flavor of cloves is quite intense, and a good pinch of ground spice or a few whole cloves is often enough. One way to add their flavor while still keeping them easy to remove is by piercing an onion with whole cloves and adding to soups, stews and casseroles. Whole cloves are especially good paired with cinnamon sticks and cardamom seeds for winter hot drinks like mulled apple juice or wine, and Libyan Jews often add a few to hot tea (I'm sipping some as I write). Whole cloves also add flavor and health when cooked with warm fruit compotes, pears in wine and Indian-style rice dishes. They will soften as they cook. A pinch of ground cloves is marvelous in a spice cake, like the one below: WHOLE-WHEAT YOGURT CAKE WITH WALNUTS, SPICES AND CRYSTALLIZED GINGER This is a good cake to serve along coffee or tea; easy to make, it's not too rich and very healthy. Makes about 12 slices 1â„2 cup canola oil 1â„2 cup golden or demerara sugar 4 eggs, hopefully organic Sift together: 2 cups whole wheat or whole wheat sifted flour 2 tsp. baking powder 1â„2 tsp. baking soda 1â„2 tsp. salt (optional) 1 tsp. ginger 1 tsp. cinnamon 1â„8-1â„4 tsp. ground cloves Add: 2 Tbsp. finely chopped crystallized ginger 1 cup finely chopped walnuts 1 cup yogurt (3% or more fat, never less) Heat oven to 180ÂºC. Grease a 28-cm. loaf pan or two 20-cm. loaf pans. Beat oil and sugar together. Add the sifted dry ingredients. Lower mixer speed and mix in one egg and half a cup of the flour mixture. Repeat with remaining eggs and flour mixture. Stir in the yogurt, ginger and walnuts. (You can also save some of the walnuts or crystallized ginger to garnish the top.) Bake for about 40 minutes (or less if using smaller pans) or till a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. SPICED KUMQUATS 500 gr. kumquats (now's the season), cut into quarters, pips removed 11â„2 cups white wine vinegar 21â„2 cups(500 gr.) golden or demerara sugar 1 cinnamon stick 15 cloves 6 allspice berries Place kumquats in a large heavy saucepan and just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook over low heat till tender. Remove with slotted spoon. Add vinegar, sugar, and spices to the cooking liquid. Bring to a boil, stirring, and return kumquats to the pan. Cook on low heat for 30 minutes. Remove kumquats with slotted spoon and put in warm sterilized jars. Boil syrup till thick and pour over. Cover and set aside two weeks before using.