The Wilson Quarterly

The cuisine of the Middle Ages, with its tincture of am­bergris and malaguetta, may not inspire many ­start-­up restaur­ants, but the ­long-­held explanation for the powerful flavors of the age turns out to be a historical myth. Meat during the period was not so rancid that its taste had to be masked with spices, writes Paul Freedman, a Yale historian. Any medieval lord rich enough to afford spices could easily have bought fresh ­meat.

Spices were both the status sym­bols and ­high-­yield investments of their day. Expensive and coveted, they were the mark of a wealthy household. Outrageously profitable, spices drove Europeans to their first overseas adventures. Pepper pur­chased in India for three Venetian ducats could fetch 80 ducats in Europe. Christo­pher Columbus was on the trail not only of gold and silk but also spices when he set off for what became America. The purpose of procuring spices, however, was not to mask the taste of bad meat, but rather to infuse good meat with the ­sweet-­sour flavor that was the epitome of the fashion­able cooking of the era.

Cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar, now most commonly used in desserts, seasoned the main courses at me­dieval banquets. They were paired with a selection of peppers, including African mala­guetta, Indian long ­pepper, and galangal—the strong spice now known mainly through Thai cooking, to flavor thin sauces often based on almond milk. Fashionable food was prepared with an eye toward achieving a pleasant color as well as taste. Rich hues could be achieved with such spices as cinnamon and saffron. Contrary to the conceit of movies set in med­ieval times, meat was not served in large haunch­es on racks, but was ground up and cooked, often several ­times, so coloring was useful.

Rarity bred prestige. When pepper became so common in the early 14th century that it was used in meals served to peasants working in the fields, it began to disappear from recipes for fine cooking. Still, cooks used spices frugally. They were occasionally used to flavor wine, then reused in ­sauces.

By the 17th century, Euro­pean cooks had moved away from heavily spiced sauces to more intense preparations based on butter, herbs, and meat reductions. Traffic in slaves, sugar, and tobacco would eventually outstrip the spice-carrying business. Ambergris, a substance created by digestion in the hindgut of the sperm whale and consid­ered the height of exotic taste in the 14th century, slowly fell out of favor. But spices remained impor­tant. New Amsterdam, eventually to be­come New York, was relin­quished by the Dutch to the English in return for Run, the most remote of the Molucca islands. No wonder the Dutch wanted Run instead of Man­hattan: The tiny spice island was the original home of ­nutmeg.

THE SOURCE: “The Medieval Taste for Spices” by Paul Freedman, in Historically Speaking, Sept.–Oct. ­2008.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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