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.
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, their use tracked carefully in household accounts, and given as gifts and largesse. Sometimes, they were even used to pay salaries and rent!
…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.
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 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) 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.
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
were hired to find faster trade routes by sea so as to make the spice trade
more profitable, and
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
cassia): Bark and buds of the
cassia tree, originating from
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
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 “
Cubebs (Piper cubeba): Berries from
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
Melitta Weiss. Regional Cuisines of
Albala, Ken. Eating Right in the Renaissance.
Peter. All The King’s Cooks: The Tudor
Kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace. Souvenir Press.
Andrew. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of
Eleanor and Terence. Early French
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.
Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Tastes of
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
and rewritten for
©2007 Chris Adler-France
 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.
 Brears, All The King’s Cooks, pg. 53.
 Dalby, Dangerous Tastes, pg. 16.
 Scully, Early French Cookery, pg. 21.
 Adamson, Regional
Cuisines of Medieval
 Dalby, Dangerous Tastes, pg. 10
 Schivelbusch, Tastes of
 Most blurbs taken from Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food.