Renaissance Spices – Show and Smell

Baroness Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina

 

Ginger, black pepper, mace, cloves, anise, caraway... these are spices that are used as commonly in today's modern cuisine as they were hundreds of years ago during the Renaissance. Finding them listed in historic recipes generally is not a problem for the redactor either insofar as calculating the recipe amounts or having them on-hand when trying out a recipe.

However… what about when you see "qubbybs" in a recipe? Or "granes of paradys"? Are "cassia" and "canel" the same thing? Is "long pepper" just another name for plain black pepper? Furthermore, where can you buy these?

Here, therefore, is a brief overview of the now-uncommon spices used during our period of study. All of them are available from The Pepperer’s Guild at Pennsic or online at http://members.cox.net/periac/pepperers.html. Some can be found in Indian groceries.[1]

Inspiration for Exploration

To say that spices were highly valued before modern times is a vast, vast understatement. Being able to own and use spices, even small amounts, was a tremendous demonstration of wealth and social status from as far back as ancient Roman times. Imported from far away, sometimes rare, and generally expensive, spices were kept under lock & key[2], their use tracked carefully in household accounts[3], and given as gifts and largesse. Sometimes, they were even used to pay salaries and rent![4]

…it is easy to say what spices are. They are natural products from a single limited region that are in demand and fetch a high price, far beyond their place of origin, for their flavour and odour. These powerful, pleasurable, sensual aromatics have been used in foods, drinks, scented oils and waxes, perfumes and cosmetics, drugs; in these various forms they have served human beings as appetizers, digestives, antiseptics, therapeutics, tonics, aphrodisiacs.[5]

Platina’s De Honesta Voluptate, Markham’s English Hous-wife, the Trotula, the Tacuinum Sanitatis: medieval and Renaissance era household and dietetic manuals regularly recommended ginger, pepper, sugar, and other spices to treat stomachaches, headaches… even cure poisoning. The Viandier, A Newe Booke of Cookeries, Epulario, and other cookbooks of the royalty and nobility followed the Humoral theory[6] and all contained tarts, meats, soups, and other recipes that included great numbers of spices (although likely not in the great amounts per each dish as often assumed; they were certainly too valuable to be used to cover up the taste of rotten meat, also as often assumed[7]) that created the distinctive sweet-spicy cuisine of this time period.

The cost of spices fluctuated according to the supplies available, but in general cinnamon (often called canell), ginger, and pepper were among the cheapest, cloves and mace were rather more expensive, while saffron was always very dear, retailing at 14 or 15 shillings a pound at various times in the 13th and 14th Centuries.[8]

So, now we know they were highly valued, but why were spices so expensive? With the exception of mustard, fennel, and a few others, most spices originated from India or islands in the Far East and had to be transported to Europe over the course of many months (if not years) via land trade routes like the Silk Road; the cost of various taxes and tolls, as the caravans traveled through each country on the trip, added to the initial price.[9] Explorers were hired to find faster trade routes by sea so as to make the spice trade more profitable, and England continued to battle (literally and figuratively) with Genoa, Venice, Portugal, Holland, and Spain over several centuries for dominance in this competition.

The 15th Century equivalent of today's quest for alternative fuel sources was a less costly trade route to the lands where spices grew, a route that would at once steer clear of toll restrictions and permit the transport of larger quantities of goods. The answer was a sea route to India, which was perhaps the grand obsession of the 15th Century. A whole generation of entrepreneurs and adventurers went in search of this route. Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were merely the successful heroes who made it into the history books. In any case, all who were caught up in this quest were driven by the prospect of the enormous riches that awaited the man who could put the pepper trade on a new, sounder footing. In the 15th Century, control of the pepper trade meant having a hold over European taste and the vast sums that would be made available to maintain that taste. Whoever controlled pepper would essentially control the purse-strings of a continent.[10]

Selected Spices[11]

Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia): Bark and buds of the cassia tree, originating from China. Often confused with (or substituted for) cinnamon, cassia has a rougher, stronger taste. Most “cinnamon” sold in America is actually cassia.

Cassia Buds: Dried unripe fruits of the cassia (cinnamon) tree look like cloves, but with thinner stalks. Their taste is sweet and similar to, but not the same as, cinnamon. They are often called for in medieval recipes, but translators frequently confused and misidentified the two. (“Flour” instead of “flowers.”)

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum): Bark of the true cinnamon tree. Herodotus and Pliny relate tall tales about cinnamon-bird nests and cinnamon-growing areas guarded by bats. Used interchangeably with cassia in food and medicine. True Cinnamon is lighter in color and more fragile than cassia, with a smoother, richer taste and smell.

Long Pepper: Closely related to black pepper, thought to originate in Arabia, the corns of this spice remain fused together and so the whole catkin is harvested and dried, unlike black pepper where the corns are threshed off their catkins.

Grains of Paradise (Aframomum melegueta): Seeds of an African tree. Used as an alternative to black pepper. Used in sausages and in certain types of mulled wine and hippocras. Also known as “Guinea grains.” Often combined with cloves and mace in spice mixes, like Powdor Forte, or in hippocras and other drinks.

Cubebs (Piper cubeba): Berries from Indonesia. Used much like pepper in both savory and sweet dishes.

Powder Forte and Powder Douce: Powder Douce is usually a mixture of sweet spices; many people use cinnamon, clove, ginger, and nutmeg with sugar. Powder Forte is a mixture of strong spices, including mace, cubeb, and galingale with pepper. The Pepperer's Guild's recipe includes cubebs, cloves, mace, nutmeg, ginger, black pepper, grains of paradise, cinnamon, and cassia. Cariadoc's recipe is: 1 part cloves, 1 part mace, 1 part cubebs, 7 parts cinnamon, 7 parts ginger, and 7 parts pepper, all ground.

Galingale/Galingal: Root/rhizome of a ginger-like Indonesian plant, imported usually as dried strips. There are two kinds, the greater [Alpina Galanga] and the lesser [Alpina Officinarum]. The editors of the Forme of Cury said that it was the chief ingredient in galantine, and identified it with powder-douce and powder-fort. Similar to ginger but more spicy, peppery, and complex. Two quite different roots were imported to medieval Europe under this name. Both are still used in Asian cookery. Greater Galingale is a tough dried root; known in medieval times as 'light galangal'. Grown in southeast Asia, it is a mild spice whose flavor might be compared to a mixture of ginger and cardamom. Lesser Galingale was known in Medieval times as “heavy galingale,” and was native to Southern China. It is of a much sharper flavor, more like a combination of ginger and pepper. It would seem to have been the preferred variety in medieval Europe, but is today less used than the Java variety.

 

 

Bibliography

Adamson, Melitta Weiss. Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe: A Book of Essays. Routledge. New York. 2002.

Albala, Ken. Eating Right in the Renaissance. University of California Press. Los Angeles. 2002.

Brears, Peter. All The King’s Cooks: The Tudor Kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace. Souvenir Press. London. 1999.

Dalby, Andrew. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. University of California Press. Los Angeles. 2000.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press. 1999.

Scully, D. Eleanor and Terence. Early French Cookery. University of Michigan Press. 1995.

Swahn, J.O. The Lore of Spices: Their history, nature and uses around the world. Crescent Books. 1991.

A Medieval and Renaissance German Spice Chest (Spices and Condiments in Several German Cookbooks - 14th to 16th centuries), http://www.silk.net/sirene/medgerm.htm.

Turner, Jack. Spice: The History of A Temptation. Vintage. 2005.

Wilson, Anne C. Food and Drink in Britain from the Stone Age to the 19th Century. Academy Chicago Publishers. Chicago. 1991

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants. Vintage. 1993.

 

Other Resources

Mistress Jadwiga has an excellent list of both period and modern books on spices on her website at http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/herbbooks.html. In addition, she has written numerous wonderful class handouts and articles on medieval spices, herbs, and gardens; see http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/herbs.html.

 

Another wonderful resource is Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages at http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/index.html. He includes not only photographs of each plant and its Latin name but also origin, etymology, which parts of the plant are used, useful links for further information, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Originally taught at College of Three Ravens, February 23, 2003

Revised and rewritten for Rapier Academy, November 17, 2007

©2007 Chris Adler-France

Katja@Thescorre.org

http://www.geocities.com/katjaorlova/MedFoodPapers.html



[1] Some also are available online at http://www.auntiearwenspices.com, http://worldspice.com/home/home.shtml, and http://www.zingermans.com, although I have never bought from those sites. I buy most of my “normal” spices and herbs at http://www.penzeys.com and recommend them highly.

[2] Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain. Pg. 285

[3] Brears, All The King’s Cooks, pg. 53.

[4] Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain. pg. 283.

[5] Dalby, Dangerous Tastes, pg. 16.

[6] Scully, Early French Cookery, pg. 21.

[7] Adamson, Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe, pg. 95.

[8] Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain, pg. 283.

[9] Dalby, Dangerous Tastes, pg. 10

[10] Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise, online quote.

[11] Most blurbs taken from Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food.