From the times of the Greeks and Romans, Europeans have imported from the East various spices to flavor their food, treat their ailments, and scent their worlds. The original spice routes started in India and travelled west through Asia Minor (later Arabia) or wound north through Africa to Egypt, finally transported across the Mediterranian to Greece and later, Rome. The fall of Rome virtually closed the water routes for about 400 years; during that time (before AD 1000), an alternative spice route developed through Russia. The first Crusade opened up the trade routes again, and it did not take long before the Italian city-states (especially Venice) were dominating the European end of the traffic. However, it was never impossible, just difficult, to get spices: a 10th-century abbot left his spice chest to his community with small hoards of cinnamon and other spices.
Some of the spices used in Europe are already familiar to us, some are more exotic. For your delectation, I present a small sampling:
While standard peppercorns were known and widely used in cooking in period (the average household might use more than a pound a year), other kinds of 'peppers' were known and used. In addition to black pepper, white pepper, which is merely black peppercorns with the outer covering removed before curing, was known in period. Legend said that black pepper was blackened by fire in the harvesting process. (Green peppercorns are unripe black peppercorns and rose pepper comes from a different plant; neither was known in Europe in period.)
Long peppers, tiny corn-cob-like fruit of a plant cousin to the pepper vine, and cubebs or tailed peppers (shaped like tiny blueberries with attached stems) imported from Indonesia to England in the thirteenth century, as well as melegueta pepper or grains of paradise, seeds of an African tree imported from Mali, went through periodic vogues as pepper substitutes or alternatives. Cubeb and long pepper were used much like pepper (in both savory and sweet dishes), grains of paradise were also used in certain types of mulled wine and hypocras.
Cinnamon and Cassia: Most people think they know cinnamon but are unfamiliar with cassia. Oddly enough, they are exactly backwards. What is sold as cinnamon in the US is the bark of the cassia tree, from China. True cinnamon tree bark (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is lighter in color, thinner, and has a smoother taste than cinnamon. Both cassia (or cassie) and cinnamon were used for its scent in fragrances, incenses, and pomanders, as well as in cooking. Herodotus and Pliny relate tall tales about where cinnamon comes from: cinnamon-bird nests and cinnamon-growing areas guarded by bats. Cinnamon was used to flavor fruit and grain dishes, as well as hashmeat, soup and other main dishes-- but because of its expense and prestige factor, it was used in cooking almost everything if one could afford it!
Roots and Rhizomes: (Rhizomes are fat tubers off of which the roots grow in certain tropical plants.) The rhizomes we know as ginger traveled as either whole roots or dried slices (to be powdered for use) or (possibly) preserved in sugar, packed in ginger jars. It was suspected of provoking lust, but widely used in saucing meats anyway. Galingale, the rhizome of a gingerlike Indonesian plant, was 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 is similar to ginger but more spicey, peppery and complex. Brightly yellow colored turmeric, another rhizome, was occasionally used as a dyestuff. Spikenard, the root of an Indian plant (Nardostachys Jatamansi), is the biblical Nard. (American Spikenard -- Aralia racemosa -- is not true spikenard.) Mary Magdalene's box of perfumed ointment was scented with spikenard . Nard was used primarily in perfumery, pomanders, oils and ointments.
Resins: Most people have heard of frankincense, which is the resin of the olibanum tree, and is still used as incense. It was imported as 'beads' of resin from India. Medically, frankincense was used to treat sinus problems and uterine disorders (a poultice of frankincense tea applied to the abdomen, or the user burnt or boiled frankincense and sat over the smoke or steam). Myrrh is the resin tapped from splits in the bark of an Arabian tree. Used extensively in wound treatments due to its antiseptic and painkilling properties, its analgesic properties have recently been proven. Frankincense and myrrh were ingredients in pomanders, cosmetics and other scented preparations, partly for their sweet smell and partly to combat illness (thought of as noxious odors). Labdanum-- not to be confused with laudanum-- is the resin of the rock-rose shrub. (Traditionally it was gathered by scraping the beards of the goats that ate rock-rose.) Labdanum was extensively in perfumery, especially pomanders. Gum arabic, gum tragacanth (gumdragon), benzoin (benjamin), and storax (styrax) are other preservative resins that were used in making fragrances and medicines.
Nutmeg and Mace: Most people know nutmeg, the seed pit of an Indian tree. Fewer know mace, which was the outer covering around the nutmeg within the fruit of the nutmeg tree. Nutmeg was shipped as whole nuts and ground for use on a grater, eaten whole as a tonic, or set in silver as pomanders. (Fresh-grated nutmeg is amazingly sharper and stronger than the pre-powdered stuff.) Mace was shipped as slivers of the dried skin. Both nutmeg and mace were used extensively in food; mace seems to have been slightly more popular, but both were signs of conspicuous consumption. Mace was also used as a strewing herb by the very rich, like German Emperor Henry VI whose coronation route in 1191 was strewn with it.
Spices were so precious that they were kept under lock and key-- in castles they were usually kept in the royal treasury, and they traveled in locked chests. The Spice Companion gives some comparative prices for some spices: "At one time a horse was valued at the same price as a pound of saffron, while a sheep could be bartered for a pound of ginger or a cow for two pounds of mace. Pepper was so highly valued that its price was measured in individual peppercorns, and they were used as currency to pay taxes and rent." It is now suspected that peppercorns were not that precious. On the other hand, the beginning spice speculator was advised to start with pepper, as there was always a demand for it and one seldom lost money!
An Herbal  Also known as Banckes' Herbal. (NY: Scholars'
Facsimiles and Reprints, 1941)
Clarkson, Rosetta. Magic Gardens (NY: Macmillan, 1939).
Craze, Richard. The Spice Companion. (Allentown, PA: People's Medical Society, 1997)
Henisch, Bridget. Fast and Feast: food in medieval society. (University Park : Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976)
Forme of Cury, online version: http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/foc/
Garland, Sarah. The complete book of Herbs and Spices. (Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 1993).
Le Menagier de Paris. online version of an 1844 English translation: http://www.best.com/~ddfr/Medieval/Cookbooks/Menagier/Menagier.html
Swahn, J.O. The Lore of Spices.(New York: Crescent Books, 1991)
Wilson, C. Anne. Food and drink in Britain. (Chicago : Academy Chicago Publishers, 1991)
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