Spices in Medieval Europe
Translator: Jean-Marc Bulit
Photos : Gérard Moncorgé
Ever since man has taken to cookery, that is, since man has gone from eating for mere survival to seeking well being through food, he has undertaken to bring changes to the taste of his food. In order to do so, he found many herbs and spices provided by Nature, that have been used on and off through the ages, depending on availability and the evolution of tastes and views.
Under Roman civilisation, the gourmet cook had a large choice of aromatic herbs (dill, coriander, cumin, laurel, lovage, rue, mint, mustard, oregano, savory, myrtle...). His choice of spices centered mainly on pepper, silphium or laser, saffron, cardamom, ginger (rarely cited) and nard. Cinnamon was a medicine then.
Clove was not found on a list of household spices before the Apici Excerpta by Vinidarius, which is a supplement to Apicius’ De Re Coquina, written probably around 6th century AD.
The first recipes with clove are those by Anthimus, Greek doctor of Frankish King Theuderic I, in Epistola de observatione ciborum (Epistle on food diet), which is a dietary text of the 6th century with recipes. Though most recipes by Anthimus are Roman indeed, we find more ginger in them than in recipes by Apicius.
According to Bruno Laurioux, you have to wait until the 9th or 10th century before the use of cinnamon starts to develop in cookery.
At the end of the 10th century, the spice trade deals essentially with pepper, cinnamon, ginger, galangal and clove.
Cubeb was known at the end of the 11th century. Nutmeg was stated in Chrétien de Troyes at the end of the 12th century. In 1195, Hildegarde de Bingen already used sugar, which was both a spice and a medicine. And there are grains of Paradise in the first part of the Roman de la Rose (1225-1228), verse 1341 written by Guillaume de Loris.
Not until the 13th or even the 14th century are spices commonly used in cookery for feasting meals.
The major spices, mainly pepper, ginger and cinnamon, are distinguished from the minor spices of lesser use, depending on the time, the country or the book under consideration. Consumption of spices varies according to fashion, price and social status. The King of France Jean le Bon for instance, in the 14th century, bought more cinnamon flowers (a very expensive minor spice) than cinnamon (major spice five times less expensive). At the court of Burgundy, in the 15th century, long pepper and grains of Paradise replaced the then common black pepper, though the gentry stayed fond of black pepper. In the 14th century, in France, the least expensive spice was pepper. In the 15th century, ginger was the least expensive, and saffron, because its price had become prohibitive, almost disappeared altogether from the table of the Lords.
It is often assumed that prohibitive prices for spices during the Middles Ages kept them to the fortunate few of the times. But in fact, the study (mainly between 1345 and 1347) of the books of Bartholomew Bonis, a rich 14th century merchant of Montauban, who dealt in spices among other things, shows that the consumption of spices was more important than we might expect, for such a small provincial town of the south of France:
- Pepper, saffron, ginger cinnamon and clove were the most bought spices, in decreasing order, and there was also (dried) coriander, as a matter of interest. In the spice mixes for pimen (the ancestor of hippocras) there was also grains of Paradise (called not ycherca), spic nard, nutmeg and mace, cubeb, long pepper, galangal and zedoary (curcuma zedoaria).
- These spices were bought either as medicine (with a prescription), or for cooking or making pimen. The spices for cooking or making pimen were bought mostly for feasts: Christmas, marriages or engagement parties. The hosting of renowned visitors would also favour purchases of candied ginger (gingibrat).
- Buyers of spices, apart from the poorest, came from all social categories: Notables, lords, bourgeois, but also craftsmen: butchers, cobblers, tailors, bakers, carpenters, blacksmiths and even herdsmen and ploughmen.
Intensive use of spices was characteristic of medieval gastronomy: according to Bruno Laurioux, three quarters of the recipes had spices in them. The European elite ate a lot of spices, first for dietary reasons (spices were supposed to make digestion easier and the medical books were full of prescriptions combining such spice, reputed hot, to such other product, considered cold, for the balance) and also for the sake of social distinction (spices were prestigious, expensive and rare, coming from a somewhat magical Orient).
It has often, wrongly, been said that medieval cooks used plenty of spices to cover up the taste of meat gone bad. But was it because we better knew how to preserve meat, that the use of spices saw a drastic reduction, from the 17th century on?
Actually, medieval cooks knew well how to use spices, how to measure them out and combine them with bread based liaison and the acid tasting products such as vinegar or verjuice (a delicate balance often forgotten by modern cooks).
Jean Louis Flandrin also studied the coincidence between the use of spices in medieval recipes and the dietary advice given in the Regimen sanitatis and other health books. We can gather that the medieval cook was also an expert in medical theories of the time.
Spices used in medieval gastronomy
- cinnamon and cinnamon flower
- grains of Paradise
- nutmeg and mace
- [black] pepper
- long pepper
- 4 rare spices
Elettaria cardamomum, family zingiberaceae.
F : cardamome / D : Kardamome / E and I : cardamomo
Native to India (Kerala), cardamom is the fruit of a plant with rhizomes of the same family as ginger. There are several sorts of cardamom cloves: green cardamom (the most used in cooking), white cardamom (used in Indian pastries) and black cardamom, also false cardamom (adapted for heavily spiced dishes because of its strong camphor flavour).
Medicinal properties: eases digestion. It was also said to have aphrodisiac properties!
Cinnamomum zeylanicum, family lauraceae.
F : cannelle / D : Zimt or Kannel / E : canela / I : cannella
The cinnamon tree is 5 to 6 meter tall, native to Sri Lanka and Southern India. Cinnamon is the bark of the thin lateral shoots from the foot of the tree. The outer bark is removed and it is cut into strips that curl on drying, giving the cinnamon quills found for sale.
Medicinal properties: eases digestion, stimulant and astringent.
While the mixing of cinnamon and ginger was a favourite of French medieval cooking, present in most recipes, cinnamon was found in less than 10% of the English recipes.
Cinnamon flowers, actually the dried flower buds of the Indonesian cinnamon or cassia (cinnamomum cassia), were also used in medieval gastronomy. In the recipes of today, it is the dried bark of the cassia tree that is used, called cassia or [bastard] cinnamon. Cinnamon flowers are difficult to find in Europe. According to The gastronomy of the Middle Ages, the flavour of cinnamon flowers was choicer than that of cinnamon.
Eugenia caryophyllata, family myrtaceae.
F : clou de girofle / D : Gewurznelke / E : clavo de especia / I : chiodo di garofano
The clove tree is 10 meters high and native to the Moluccan Islands. The cloves are the flower buds, dried in the sun.
Medicinal properties: an antiseptic, well known to people who go to the dentist’s. Is also used to treat certain intestinal disorders. Is said to ease child delivery.
The clove trade was a Dutch monopoly for several centuries. Pierre Poivre was the one to successfully introduce the clove tree to the island of Mauritius.
In contemporary cooking, we stick the clove in an onion to flavour the court bouillon. As if to nail the clove’s flavour in ! For a harmonious flavouring, it is better to grind the clove to a powder, as it was done in the Middle Ages.
[Greater] galangal: Alpinia galanga. Lesser galanga: alpinia officinarum. Family zingiberaceae.
F : galanga / D : Galanga / E and I : galanga
Galangal, also garingal in some medieval recipes, is a plant with an edible rhizome root, like ginger, native to Indonesia and China.
The consumption of garangal develops starting in the 14th century in Europe, but it is already found in the spices bought by the Corbie monastery, in the 9th century: 10 lbs garingal, clove and costus root (sassurea lappa clarke, native to India and of wide use in Roman cooking).
Zingiber officinale, family zingiberaceae.
From Sanskrit singabera (in the shape of antlers) and the Latin zingiber.
F : gingembre / D : Ingwer / E : jengibre / I : zenzero
Native to India or China, ginger is a plant with a rhizome root, which is eaten raw or dried.
Medicinal properties: eases digestion, stimulant and carminative.
Seldom found during the Roman period, its use in Europe developed during the Middle Ages. According to Bruno Laurioux, ginger was found in one quarter of all medieval French and English recipes. Ginger was of less use in Italy and Spain, during that same period. At least three different kinds of ginger were used then: common ginger, white ginger (from around Madras) and Meccan ginger (having passed in transit through Mecca). Proof, if need be, of the gustatory sensitivity to spices of the medieval gourmets!
Grains of Paradise
Amomum melegueta, family zingiberaceae.
Grains of Paradise, also called Melegueta pepper or Guinea pepper, was often graine in French manuscripts, grayne or greyn of Paris in the English ones. In Catalan it was nous de xarch.
Melegueta comes from a Hindi word meaning pepper.
The plant is native to Liberia and Ghana. It is a perennial plant with rhizomes, of the same family as ginger. The dried seeds of the fruit are the grains of Paradise. They were more appreciated in the medieval gastronomy of 14th and 15th century France than in that of the other European countries. It appears that the reference to Paradise in its name was part of this spice’s success. But its use declined, starting in the 16th century, when its African origins became known. It has practically disappeared from the shelves of the today’s grocery stores. It is still prized in Northern Africa in some spice mixes for Tajines dishes or some blends of Ras el Hanout. It is starting to be rediscovered now.
Nutmeg and mace
Mysristica fragans, family myristaceae.
F : noix de muscade et macis / D : Muskatnüsse / E : nuez moscada / I : noce moscata
Nutmeg is the fruit of an 18 meter high tree, native to New Guinea and the Moluccan Islands. Nutmeg is actually the seed inside the shell of the fruit. A fibrous vivid red envelope covers the seed: the mace.
The flavour of mace is somewhat stronger than that of the nutmeg seed.
Medicinal properties: an analgesic.
Not part of the Roman spices, nutmeg and mace were widely used in the Middle Ages though. The English preferred mace and the French preferred nutmeg.
Piper nigrum, family piperaceae.
Comes from the Latin piper.
F : poivre / D : Pfeffer / E : pimienta / I : pepe
Pepper is a perennial climbing liana, native to the Malabar Coast of Southern India. It produces bunches of berries.
Green pepper is also the berry picked unripe, which can be eaten fresh; it is preserved in brine, frozen or under vacuum. Black pepper is the berry picked before ripening; it is dried in the sun. White pepper comes from the berry picked ripe, when it is red; only the inner seed is kept.
Medicinal properties: in small quantities, a digestive stimulant.
Pepper was the principal spice in Ancient Roman cookery. It is found, along with garum, in most Roman recipes. It is of much lesser use in Medieval cooking. Though Italians and Catalans used it foremost, cooks like Taillevent or Maître Chiquart would prefer grains of Paradise or long pepper, as they considered black pepper much too common and too hot for the delicate stomachs of the elites.
Piper longum, family piperaceae.
Long Pepper is a climbing liana of the same family as black pepper. It is necessary to go to specialized spice stores, nowadays in France, in order to find the hot tasting, hard and black little bunches of tiny seeds, native to India and 2 to 4 cm long. Surprisingly, I found some in a mix for Tajines dishes I bought in Morocco.
Long pepper is found in certain recipes of the Forme of Cury, the Viandier de Taillevent or the Menagier de Paris. Long pepper brings a flavour that complements that of black pepper and is less hot, thus healthier.
le livre des simples médecines (extract), French manuscript 12322 Bibliothèque nationale de Paris.
Crocus sativus, family iridaceae.
F : safran / D : Safran / E : azafran / I : zafferano
The word saffron comes from the Arabic za'faran, meaning yellow. The Arabs introduced its cultivation to Spain. Saffron is made of the stigmas of the flower of the crocus plant, a perennial bulbous plant, which blooms in the fall and grows in mild climates (From England to Turkey and Iran). It consists in redish orange filaments. The choicest saffron today is grown in Spain. It is the most expensive spice in the world (you need 200,000 crocus flowers to obtain 450 grams of saffron, and cultivation is unmechanized). Saffron is used for its particular taste. Il is also used to colour dishes. Because it is so expensive, it is sometimes adulterated (curcuma is often substituted for saffron, in the form of powder). Saffron is an important spice in Mediterranean cooking: paella, risotto, bouillabaisse fish soup.
Medicinal properties: sedative, antispasmodic, avoids feeling bloated.
Saffron was a prized spice in the Medieval cookery of Italy, of Catalonia and of England. Many Medieval recipes give an indication of colour for the dishes. Since the Medieval cooks didn't have all those coloured vegetables, such as tomatos or sweet peppers, at their disposal, they would easily use saffron to give a yellow coloration to the dishes, and parsley and other herbs for a colour green. Maître Chiquart and Taillevent even used orchil, a lichen that gives a colour blue, and alkanet or dyer’s bugloss, a plant of the same family as borage, that gives a colour red. Maître Chiquart also used gold leaves to give a golden aspect to certain dishes such as rissoles (51, leaflet 77r).
Sugar was obtained from sugar cane, which was cultivated in the Middle East, in Spain and in Sicily. Sugar was therefore, like spices, an uncommon and expensive product. It was considered both a spice and a medicine in the Middle Ages. It is found in many recipes "for the sick", and also, in the composition of sweet and sour sauces (rather than honey, because honey was considered too common maybe). This had to be pointed out !
Four rare spices
To this list of some fifteen or so spices (how many cooks are there today, still capable of using all ?) can be added some that appear less often in the recipes:
- Cubeb (piper cubeba), or tailed pepper, is native to Ceylon and Indonesia. It is found in the Tractabus de modo, in a recipe for rabbit (II.11) and another for cameline sauce (V.11).
- Mastic, a resin obtained from the mastic tree, was used in Arabo-Persian cookery and figures on the well-known list of spices of the Viandier
- Spikenard (nardostachys yatamansi) was Latin spica nardi or espicnardi in the Middle Ages. It is present in several recipes of Apicius, and found again in a recipe for hippocras, of the Ménagier de Paris and of the Thresor de santé (health treasure). Spikenard is also cited in Forme of Cury. It is the root of a weed of the same family as valerian.
- Sumac consists of the dried berries of a Mediterranean shrub (Rhus coriaria or Tanner’s sumac, family terebinthaceae), which is cultivated in Sicily, the south of Italy and throughout the Middle East. Sumac is supposed to have been used in Ancient Roman cookery (it is not found in Apicius).
It is a spice commonly used today in Middle Eastern cooking (Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Iran) to give an acidic flavour to salads, fish or meat dishes. People can easily find them in Armenian grocery stores in France, for instance.
Concerning the Middle Ages, there is often sumac in recipes of the Baghdad cookery book and we have found sumac again in the Liber de coquina: II.10 De sumachia (sumac), II.11 Recipe pullos (chicken) and V.11 De composito lumbardico (Lombard mix).