Spice it up medieval style  Facebook 

July 11th, 2009  |  Published in Attualità, Opinioni, Society  |  4 Comments by Christina Kolyva

e28098the-spice-tradee28099-by-guillaume-le-testuThe use of spices in medieval Europe was so profuse and different from our culinary habits, that with today’s standards the idea of a household consuming pounds of spices every day is enough to make us sneeze and choke on the amount of aroma and flavour such condimental quantity would involve. Yes, in those days they did have large households, but also very different gourmet concepts! Medieval palates were used to a mixture of pungent flavours and only spices were suitable to quench this craving. Food was almost buried under spices and as if this ’seasoning’ was not enough, it was customary to have a spice platter-a silver or gold tray with compartments for different spices-which would be passed around the dinner table in order for the guests to further add spices to their food according to taste.

Spices were anything but cheap, so cost is no explanation for their abundance. Rather, spices became so popular because they offered a taste from an enchanted and far-away world and like all other Arabic or Asian luxury goods, they were a privilege of the upper classes only. The higher the rank of a household, the larger its use of spices, with historians often surprised by the percentage of the noble budget that was spent on spices. Spices like pepper, cinnamon or nutmeg were a kind of status symbol, commonly used instead of currency in financial deals. Rent and taxes could be paid in peppercorns and wealthy people were described as… ’sacks of pepper’. Spices were considered gifts fit for the royalty and were kept under lock, like silver, gold and precious textiles.

Most spices of the middle ages are still in use nowadays: pepper, cinnamon, cassia, cloves, saffron, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cardamom (known back then also as amomum), coriander, cumin, sumac, turmeric, anise, mastic, caraway and mustard, created a dazzling symphony of flavours. The popularity of such spices might have changed over the years-for example saffron was a huge favourite back then, nutmeg was… put into everything, cumin was popular among the wealthy… alcoholics because it gave them a pale complexion and the absence of at least a few cloves from a household was considered a huge embarrassment for the host-but they remain essentially the same. Some other favourite medieval spices however, have today fallen into obscurity and are rare in the western world.

Grains of Paradise (otherwise known as Guinea pepper, Malaguetta pepper or alligator pepper) resemble black pepper in taste, but they are less pungent and more aromatic, like a zesty blend of ginger, cardamom and pepper. The seeds, which are brown and triangular, were brought from the Gulf of Guinea to north Africa and from there were taken to Sicily and Italy. The name of the spice is a clever advertising trick, with traders claiming that the seeds grew only in Eden and were collected from the rivers flowing out of Paradise. They were very popular in the 13th century and were used as a more affordable substitute for black peppercorns. Today, grains of Paradise are mostly unknown outside west and north Africa, although their popularity has been somewhat revived due to their use in raw food diets and by famous chefs.

Zedoary belongs to the same family as ginger and is native to India and Indonesia. Its rhizome has a smell similar to turmeric, mango and ginger. Although it was popular during the Middle Ages, these days it is extremely rare in the western world, having been replaced almost totally by ginger.e28098black-peppere28099-in-le-livre-des-merveilles-de-marco-polo

Long pepper is a type of pepper with a stronger flavour than black pepper-hot, but with sweet and earthly tones. Dark brown, about 3-4 cm long, it looks like an elongated miniature-pinecone, consisting of a cluster of tiny berries that are embedded in the surface of a flower spike. It was introduced to the Mediterranean from the south and south-east Asia and, as we learn from Antonio Pigafetta in his Magellan’s Voyage, the natives of Indonesia (where long pepper is indigenous) used to call it luli. It was very popular in the classical era and Medieval Europe, but was pushed aside by the New World chilli pepper and has since fallen into obscurity.

Cubeb seeds (tailed pepper) have a warm woody smell, with a flavour that reminds us of allspice and pepper and look like tiny berries with attached stems. It was imported to Europe from Indonesia by-who else?-the Venetians. Cubeb features in a 14th century moral tale by the Catalan monk Francesc Eiximenis (in Com Usar bé de Beure e Menjar), in which he illustrates gluttony by mocking the habits of a worldly and wealthy member of the clergy who lives a life of luxury abundant with spices. Cubeb is hardly ever found in European markets today.

Galangal is a plant indigenous to China and Java and belongs to the ginger family as well. Its rhizome is not dissimilar to ginger in taste, with a sweet and highly aromatic citrus character. It is widely mentioned in the literature of the Middle Ages for its medicinal properties. For example, the German abbess and polymath Hildegard of Bingen called it ‘the spice of life’ and wrote that it had been sent by God to protect against illness. As a spice it became popular in England from the time of the Crusades, brought back home from the Middle East. It also appears abundantly in The Forme of Cury, a recipe book written by the cooks of Richard II. It is rarely encountered in Europe today, but is still very popular in Thai cuisine. It remains one of the ingredients of Ras al-hanout, the famous Moroccan spice mix, together with grains of Paradise, long pepper and cubeb, interestingly enough.

Spikenard belongs to the Valerian family and has an aromatic rhizome. It is indigenous to the Himalayas. It was used in the Medieval times mostly in recipes for hippocras (spiced wine), featuring both in The Forme of Cury and Le Ménagier de Paris, a medieval guidebook on a woman’s proper behaviour as a wife and housewife.

Was it more the status of spices as luxury products of mysterious origin or their important medicinal properties that made them so desirable in the Middle Ages? Whatever the reason, the combination of limited supply and high demand shot their price up to unprecedented heights. As the first globally traded product, spices were one of the earliest motivations for globalisation. Who knows how different the world as we know it today would be if the quest for new routes to the Far East, to conquer the countries that produced spices, had not led Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco Da Gama to embark on their epic journeys?

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  1. Elisa says:

    July 11th, 2009 at 17:54 (#)

    thank you for writing this! I find the subject of spices during the centuries fascinating.

  2. Rocco says:

    July 16th, 2009 at 23:53 (#)

    Really fascinating indeed.

  3. gValtolina says:

    July 19th, 2009 at 01:19 (#)

    i do agree. nice.

  4. Sam says:

    July 21st, 2009 at 09:35 (#)

    great article! thanks. i am a big fan of grains of paradise, especially for its health benefits.

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