Spices from the East

"For that I am not spycier ne apotecarie,
I can not name alle maneres of spyces,
but I shall name a partie:
gynger, galingale, cubibes, saffran,
pepre, comyne, sugre white and broun,
flour of cammelle, anyse, graynes of paradys,
of thise thinges be made confection and good poudres,
whereof is made good sausses
and electuaries for medicines."
[from a Book of the Trades published by Caxton and reproduced in David Riesman, The Story of medicine in the middle ages, 1931]

Asafeotida, Asafetida (Ferula asafoetida): rank smelling plant resin from Afghanistan. Also called hing or devils-dung. The Romans adopted it as a successor to silphium, when that plant became extinct. (It was popular in Roman cuisine but used with caution and in small amounts. Cooks stored  it in jars with pine nuts and then used the pine nuts to season food.) Andre Dalby says "from the end of the Roman Empire until the sixteenth century Europeans rarely encountered asafoetida, and then only as a medicine."

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum): dark brown polygonal seeds in oval green or brown pods imported from India. There are a variety of cardamom-type spices, some of them called bastard cardamom or other 'false cardamom'; E. cardamomum is the 'true cardomom'. The Greek writer Theophrastus listed it as an ingredient in perfumes. The Arabs flavored their coffee with it, and it was also used in mulled wine. Meat and rice dishes are often flavored with cardamom, and cardamom was well known in late period England. Ground cardamom quickly loses its flavor, so it's best to buy the seeds or the pods whole and grind the seeds yourself.

Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia): bark and buds of the cassia tree, from China. Often confused with (or substituted for) cinnamon, cassia has a rougher, stronger taste. Often called 'canel'. The buds of cassia, looking a bit like cloves, are often called for in medieval recipes but rendered by translators as 'fine' or 'flour of ' cassia instead. Almost all 'cinnamon' sold in America is cassia.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum): bark of the true cinnamon tree; the ancients thought it came from Arabia. 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 (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is lighter  in color and more fragile than cassia, with a smoother, richer taste and smell. John Russell, in his Boke of Nuture, says:
    "Looke that your stikkes of synamome be thynn, bretille, and fayre in colewre,
    And in youre mowthe fresche, hoot, and swete: that is best and sure,
    For cannelle is not so good in this craft and cure.
    Synamome is hoot and dry in his worchynge while he will dure."
Cinnamon was burned as a precious incense-- a measure of wealth indeed! Cinnamon oil was used for anointing in the ancient Hebrew temple, and Nero burnt one year's worth of Roman cinnamon imports at his wife's funeral. Cinnamon was used to flavor fruit and grain dishes, and used in hashmeat especially-- but because of its expense and prestige factor, it was used in cooking almost EVERYTHING if one could afford it. Humorally, cinnamon was considered hot in the second degree and dry in the first degree.

Citrus (Citrus species): oranges (specifically the 'bitter' or 'sour' orange), lemons and citrons were imported from Spain and the Middle East. They were used extensively as flavorings (in meats as well as sweets), but generally not eaten on their own. In the 16th century, 'suckets' of candied orange peels, made by soaking out the bitterness from the peels and crystallizing them in sugar, were a popular comfit and subtlety decoration. Humorally, orange rind was considered hot in the third degree and dry in the first degree.

Cloves (Syzyium aromaticum): nail-shaped flower-buds of a tree from the East Indies. Cloves were chewed to freshen the breath, and used extensively in cooking, including meats and sauces. Ground/powdered cloves were also used in gruels and sweets. Clove's antiseptic and slight painkilling affects were exploited in wound treatments as well as treatments for toothache, for 'coldness of the blood'. Considered one of the hottest of spices; humorally, cloves was considered hot in the third degree and dry in the first degree.

Cubebs (Piper cubeba): pepper berries from Java, imported to England in the thirteenth century. Cubebs show up in medieval recipes, used like pepper. Humorally, considered hot and dry.

Frankincense (Boswellia Thurifera): resin of the olibanum tree. The best, said Banckes, is clear and white. Came as 'beads' of resin. Imported from India. Used in incense. Also used to treat sinus problems and uterine disorders (a poultice of frankincense tea applied to the abdomen, or the patient would burn or steep frankincense and sit over the smoke or steam), wounds and eye disorders. A rich, church-y smell and taste. Humorally, hot and dry in the second degree

Galingale, Galingal, Galanga: 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 galentine, and identified it with powder-douce and powder-fort. It was also used in medications. Similar to ginger but more spicy, peppery and complex. Le menagier de Paris says, "Galingale which is most reddish-violet when cut is the best." Humorally, galingale was considered hot in the second degree and dry in the third degree.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale): rhizome of a tropical plant. Traveled as either whole roots, dried slices or conserved (preserved in sugar) slices. Ginger comfits or suckets were also made in Europe by the 16th century. Jars for sprouting/growing ginger, presumably for 'green ginger' were in use by the end of the 16th century. The dried slices were often powdered for use in recipes. Gingerbread was a popular sweet, made with honey, spices and breadcrumbs, sold in decorated slices by gingerbread baking guilds, at least in Torun. Suspected of provoking lust, but widely used in saucing meats anyway. John Russell mentions the three grades of medieval ginger in his Boke of Nuture:
    "Se that your gynger be welle y-oared, or hit to powder ye bete,
    And that hit be hard, withowt worme, bytynge, and good hete.
    For good ginger Colombyne is best to drynke and ete:
    Gynger Valadyne and Maydelyne ar not so holsom in mete."

Le menagier de Paris reminds us:
"Note that there are three differences between meche Ginger and Colurnbian (or columbine: trans.) ginger. For meche ginger has a darker skin, and it is easier to cut and whiter inside than the other; item, better and always more expensive."
Humorally, ginger was considered hot in the third degree and dry in the third degree.

Grains of Paradise (Aframomum melegueta): a species of cardamom, seeds of an African tree. Gets its other name, guinea pepper or melegueta pepper, from the kingdom of Mali, whence it was imported. Faddish as an alternative to pepper in period, and mentioned in the classic Romance of the Rose. Used in sausages and in certain types of mulled wine and hypocras. Humorally, hot in the third degree and dry in the third degree; however John Russell called them hot and moist.

Le Menagier de Paris's recipe for hypocras:

HIPPOCRAS. To make powdered hippocras, take a quarter-ounce of very fine cinnamon, hand-picked by tasting it, an ounce of very fine meche ginger and an ounce of grains of paradise, a sixth of an ounce of nutmeg and galingale together, and pound it all together. And when you want to make hippocras, take a good half-ounce or more of this powder and two quarter-ounces of sugar, and mix them together, and a quart of wine as measured in Paris.
Labdanum (Cistus ladaniferus): resin of the rock-rose. Gathered from the beards of the goats that ate rock-rose. Used extensively in perfumery, especially pomanders.

Laurel, or bay leaves (Laurus nobilis), had to be imported as dried leaves (and berries) or potted plants from the Mediterranean, as bay will not grow well in Northern Europe. Humorally, hot and dry.

Mace (Myristica fragrans): the outer covering around the nutmeg within the fruit of the nutmeg tree. The best is the color of gold, says Banckes, and it will keep 10 years. Also used as a strewing herb by the very rich, like German Emperor Henry VI whose coronation route in 1191 was strewn with it. Humorally, mace was considered both hot and dry in the first degree.

Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus): gum resin used in medicine and in Islamic cooking but more generally used in making pomanders and varnishes. In Greece and the Near East, it was also used a chewing gum to freshen the mouth.

Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha): resin tapped from splits in the bark of an Arabian tree. An aromatic used in pomanders, cosmetics and other scented preparations, as well as embalming. Used extensively in wound treatments due to its antiseptic properties. Still used in mouthwashes and some antiseptics.

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans): seed pit of the nutmeg tree, imported from India. Le menagier de Paris says: "The heaviest nutmegs are the best and the firmest to cutting. And also the heavy galingale which is firm in cutting, for if it is spoiled it is rotten and lightweight like dead wood; this is not good, but that which is heavy and firm under the knife like walnut-wood, that is good." Banckes says nutmegs will keep seven years and agrees with modern experts that the best nutmegs are firm and heavy and do not powder when ground. Shipped as whole nuts and ground for use, or eaten whole. Candied nutmeg or nutmeg in confit was the sugar-cured sweet made from the fruits of the M. fragrans tree, according to Dalby. Nutmegs set in silver were a popular late-period pomander. Humorally, nutmeg was considered hot in the second degree and dry in the second degree.

Both Banckes and Hildegarde of Bingen mention it as a general tonic, suggesting consuming the whole nuts.

Hildegarde gives a recipe for a small cake to be eaten to preserve the health:

"Take some nutmeg and an equal weight of cinnamon and a bit of  cloves, and pulverize them. Then make small cakes with this and fine  whole wheat flour and water. Eat them often. ..."
Pepper (Piper nigrum): black, white and green peppercorns come from the same plant, but medieval cooks only had black -- with the skins on-- or white-- with them removed. Legend said that black pepper was blackened by fire in the harvesting process. (Rose pepper comes from a different plant and was not known in period.) Used extensively in cooking. Dalby says "Pepper was much the commonest and most typical oriental spcie in medieval Europe. A perfuctory description of a rich meal will name papper if no other spices." Poivre noir, or black pepper sauce, was commonly served with  game. It was also used on fish, as John Russell tells us:
    "Garlek or mustard, verjeus therto, pepur the powderynge--
    For thornebak, houndfysche and also fresche herynge,
    Hake, stokfyshe, haddok, cod, and whytynge--
    Ar moost metist for thes metes, as techithe us the wrytynge."

Long pepper (Piper longum), a relative, comes as long dried seed capsules and has a fiercer flavor. Long pepper was more expensive and more popular than white or black in Roman times and was popular through the 16th century. Humorally, pepper is hot in the fourth degree and dry in the fourth degree.

Saffron (Crocus sativus): The stigils of the saffron crocus, which can be grown in northern latitudes but the best comes from Turkey. Even in medieval times, it was often adulterated with safflower or turmeric. Supposedly imported to England in the reign of Edward III. Medieval cooks used it extensively in both sweet and savory dishes, for flavor and color. Extensively used as a dyestuff. According to Dalby, it was also "burnt in sacrifice, and . . . used in a subtle and seductive aromatic oil, crocinum, to be appled to the hair."  Humorally, saffron was considered hot in the second degree and dry in the first degree.

Saunders, Sandalwood, Santal:  both red (Pterocarpus santalinus) and yellow (Santalum album) were known; red, which is basically scentless, was used extensively for coloring food, yellow for burning and other scented applications.

Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi): oil derived from the leaves and root of an Indian plant. Also called Nard. (American Spikenard -- Aralia racemosa -- is not true spikenard). Used primarily in perfumery (Mary Magdalene's box of perfumed ointment was scented with spikenard), but sometimes also in food-- subtleties especially.

Sugar (Saccharum officinarum): cane sugar (beet sugar was unknown) originally imported from the Indies by way of Venice. According to Dalby, "by the year 1000, [the growing of sugar] had reached the Middle East and the coast of East Africa." Medieval sugar was dark brown, unless it had been refined and generally came molded into cones or blocks. Medieval and Renaissance writers give directions for refining/whitening sugar. Dishes described as 'Cypriot' usually included sugar. The Greek writer Dioscorides described sugar:

"There is also a substance called sakkharon, a sort of crystallized honey, in India and Arabia. It is found in reeds; it is not unlike salt in its texture, and can be crunched between the teeth like salt. It is laxative, good to drink dissolved in water, beneficial in bladder disorders and for the kidneys; in eyedrops it helps with cataract."

Turmeric (Curcuma domestica): another rhizome. Brightly yellow colored, it was used as a dyestuff at the end of the 16th century, but wasn't generally imported from the East before then.

Powder Fort and Powder Douce

Powder Douce is usually a mixture of sweet spices; many people use cinnamon, sugar, ginger, nutmeg, etc.

The Medieval Kitchen's recipe for powder douce calls for

2 rounded T. ground ginger, same of cinnamon, 2 heaping T. powdered bay leaves, ground to a powder, and 1 1/2 t. ground cloves
Powder Fort is a mixture of strong spices, including pepper, mace, cubeb, galingale, etc.

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."

Fine Spice Mixture from Le menagier of Paris:

"FINE POWDER of spices. Take (probably: Ed.) an ounce and a drachma of white ginger, (probably: Ed.) a quarter-ounce of hand-picked cinnamon, half a quarter-ounce each of grains and cloves, and (probably: Ed.) a quarter-ounce of rock sugar, and grind to powder."

Blanch Powder , from Cogan's The Haven of Heath...  1612
"Also with two ounces of sugar, a quarter of an ounce of ginger, and half a quarter of an ounce of cinnamon, all beaten small into powder, you may make a gvery good blanch powder to strew upon roasted apples, quinces or wardens, or to sauce a hen . . ." (cited in Wilson, Food and Drink of Britain, p. 284)

Spice blends taken from the anonymous Venetian cookbook (14th/15th century) http://www.geocities.com/helewyse/libroenglish.html

LXXIII Fine spices for all dishes (things)
Take one ounce of pepper, one of cinnamon, one of ginger, half a quarter (of an ounce) of cloves, and a quarter (of an ounce) of saffron.

LXXIV Sweet spices, enough for many good and fine things
The best fine sweet spices that you can make, for lamprey pie or for other good fresh water fish that one makes in a pie, and for good broths and sauces.
Take a quarter (of an ounce) of cloves, an ounce of good ginger, an ounce of soft (or sweet) cinnamon, and take a quantity (the same amount of?) Indian bay leaves (*) and grind all these spices together how you please. And if you don't want to do more, take these things (spices) in the same ratio (without grinding) and they will be marvelously good. * the glossary at the end of the Arnaldo Forni edition of this book indicates that folio in this recipe refers to malabathrum or Cinnamomum tamala also known as Indian bay leaf.

LXXV Black and strong spices for many sauces.
Black and strong spices to make sauces. Take half a quarter (of an ounce) of cloves, two ounces of pepper and an (equal) quantity of long pepper and nutmeg and do as all spices (grind).

Prices of spices

"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 fourteen or fifteen shillings a pound at various times in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Saffron was a much used spice of medieval times, at least in the homes of the well-to-do. But a little goes a long way, and Dame Alice de Bryene used only three-quarters of a pound in 1418-19, a year in which five pounds of pepper, two and a half of ginger, three of cinnamon, one and a quarter of cloves and one and a quarter of mace were expended in spicing the food for her household." -- C. Anne Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain, p.283

For more on spice quantities, see the posting "Better Cooking through Forensic accountancy," by Anton de Stoc (Ian Whitchurch), from the SCA-Cooks list: http://www.lehigh.edu/~jahb/herbs/spiceaccounts.html, and John H. Munro's article on relative pricing at http://www.economics.utoronto.ca/munro5/SPICES1.htm

Why were spices used?
Terence Scully's The Art of Cooking in the Middle Ages gives an excellent overview of the humoral theories behind the use of spices and the recipe techniques in the middle ages. However, Jean-Louis Flandrin gives a quick overview, noting the fashionableness and conspicuous consumption explanations, and then sums up the humors:

"Accordingly, spices that were used as seasoning, all of which were considered to be 'hot' (and for the most part dry), had the virtue of counterbalancing the coldness of the foods with which they were served, thereby assisting the digestive cooking process. Pepper was said to be 'of the fourth degree' of hotness and dryness. Cloves, galanaga, cardamom, and curcuma were of the third degree; cinnamon, cumin, cubebe, and nutmeg were of the second degree; and so on.
In fact, numerous native flavorings and condiments were also thought to be hot and dry. As noted in Aldobrandino's book, garlic and mustard were of the fourth degree, just like pepper; parsely, sage, pennyroyal, leeks, garden watercress, and mountain hyssop were of the third degree; fennel, caraway seeds, chervil, mint, roquette, and river watercress were of the second degree; and so on. In general, all aromatic plants were considered hot. But spices, which came from the hot countries of the East, had been seen since antiquity as more refined and subtle and therefore medically more reliable than indigenous aromatic plants." ("Seasoning, Cooking and Dietetics in the Middle Ages")

Some sauce recipes:

Black Sauce:
Original: "Black poivre. Crush ginger and charred bread and pepper, moisten with vinegar and verjuice, and boil (The Viander of Taillevent, edited by Scully, 227, translated in The Medieval Kitchen, Redon et al.)" Crush up the charred bread into bread crumbs, grind up the pepper (use fresh-ground) and mix with powdered ginger. Mix this with the vinegars and add salt. Bring to a boil in a saucepan. Remove from heat. Keeps at least a week refrigerated.

Tournai-style Cameline sauce

Original: "CAMELINE. Note that at Tournais, to make cameline, they grind together ginger, cinnamon and saffron and half a nutmeg: soak in wine, then take out of the mortar; then have white bread crumbs, not toasted, moistened with
cold water and grind in the mortar, soak in wine and strain, then boil it all, and lastly add red sugar: and this is
winter cameline. And in summer they make it the same way, but it is not boiled." Le Menagier de Paris Grate your nutmeg into the mortar. Add cinnamon and saffron and grind together withginger. Add the white wine. Strain, then bring to a boil and add sugar. Cook until thin sauce consistency.

Further reading:

Craze, Richard. The Spice Companion: the culinary, cosmetic, and medicinal uses of Spices. (Allentown, PA: People's Medical Society, 1997)

Dalby, Andrew. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

Forme of Cury, online version: http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/foc/

Garland, Sarah. The complete book of Herbs and Spices: an illustrated guide to growing and using culinary, aromatic, cosmetic and medicinal plants. (Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 1993).

Flandrin, Jean-Louis, "Seasoning, Cooking and Dietetics in the Late Middle Ages," in Food: a culinary history from antiquity to the present (NY: Columbia University Press, 1996), p.313-327.

Hildegard von Bingen. Physica. Translated by Priscilla Throop. (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998).

Katzer, Gernot. Gernot Katzer's Spice pages http://www-ang.kfunigraz.ac.at/~katzer/engl/

Le Menagier de Paris. online version of an 1844 English translation:
http://www.best.com/~ddfr/Medieval/Cookbooks/Menagier/Menagier.html

Munro, John H. "The Consumption of Spices and Their Costs in Late-Medieval and Early-Modern Europe: Luxuries or Necessities?" Lecture Notes. http://www.economics.utoronto.ca/munro5/SPICES1.htm

Redon, Odile, et al. The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)

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

Smithson, Louise, "Translation of Libro di cucina/ Libro per cuoco (14th/15th c.)  (Anonimo Veneziano)." http://www.geocities.com/helewyse/libroenglish.html

Wilson, C. Anne. Food and drink in Britain : from the Stone Age to the 19th century.  (Chicago : Academy Chicago Publishers, 1991)

Thanks to Terri Spencer, who looked up the humoral qualities of the spices.


Copyright 2000, 2004, Jennifer A. Heise. Contact me via email for permission to reprint: jahb@lehigh.edu
Permission is explicitly granted for limited reproduction as a printed handout for classes in schools, herb society meetings, or classes or guild meetings in the Society for Creative Anachronism (except to corporate officers and board members of the SCA, Inc.), as long as I am notified and credited and the entire handout is used. [Jadwiga's herbs homepage:  http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/herbs.html ].