Spicing Things Up! The Medieval Luxury Food Trade

My faithful blog readers will recognize Toni Mount as a guest who always has exciting insight to share about medieval times. Her books are some of my favorites, and I’m sure her latest, How to Survive in Medieval England, will be no exception. Toni is here to give us a fun sneak peek!

Welcome, Toni!

~ Samantha


Spicing Things Up! The Medieval Luxury Food Trade

Guest Post by Toni Mount

My new book, How to Survive in Medieval England, published by Pen & Sword, is a guide to travelling in history: what to expect, how to dress, how to stay safe and what to look for on the menu.

If you were able to go back in time to medieval England, so much would be very different and so many things missing – all technology, from engines to the Internet. Medical care would be primitive in comparison to the twenty-first century and public transport non-existent. All work would be manual and cookery recipes and methods mostly guesswork, so you may be surprised to discover that medieval cooks used all manner of exotic spices from faraway lands. In fact, the list included spices we have almost forgotten about today. Medieval folk adored spicy food; in fact, the spicier the better. (There were no chillies because they originated in the Americas and weren’t known until c.1500.) It was all a matter of flaunting your wealth because spices were an expensive luxury, available only to the rich.

How to Survive in Medieval England contains some imagined interviews with people of the time as a novel means of telling about true aspects or incidents in their lives. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Lady Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, in the year 1263 about running the household at Odiham Castle, Hampshire. She talks about the spices she purchased for a special occasion and her shopping list still exists. 

‘What about feeding your household, my lady?’   

‘We have the produce from our desmesne – the home farm – both stored and fresh, the villeins’ rental payments in kind, as well as our own livestock for meat and the castle fishponds for fresh fish, plus our fishing rights on the river. Although the local abbey disputes our sole rights there.’

‘But the local produce only supplies the basics. What about luxurious foodstuffs? So noble a household must surely be able to afford them?’

‘Such impertinence! Of course we can afford them. Why, last Easter, I entertained two bishops and their retinues. The meals had to impress because Simon wanted me to persuade them to his cause. I sent to London, to the grocers and pepperers, to supply me with all manner of delicacies. I ordered six pounds weight of ginger from India, costing fifteen shillings. Eight pounds of peppercorns at eighteen shillings and eight pence and six of cinnamon costing six shillings. Did you know that cinnamon bark is washed downstream from the Garden of Eden itself? Or so the merchants say. I ordered just a pound of saffron, it being the most expensive spice, even though we grow it in England, and that alone cost fourteen shillings. I debated whether to order cloves and nutmeg but the bishops don’t deserve too much luxury. I settled for twelve pounds of sugar, six pounds of sugar mixed with mace, ten pounds of rice… You look surprised.’

‘I didn’t know you ate rice, my lady.’

‘Well, it is a luxury your sort can’t afford but it’s imported, like the sugar, from Cyprus – the island wrested for Christendom by Richard the Lionheart. But back to my order: I included twenty pounds of almonds at four shillings and tuppence and an Easter treat for Simon: a box of gingerbread but don’t tell him it cost two shillings and four pence. He’s a frugal man where his own pleasures are concerned and will berate my extravagance.’

Sugar, almonds and rice were counted as spices in those times and the countess mentions the story that cinnamon bark is washed downstream from the Garden of Eden. The origins of other spices also included some fantastical stories. It seems incredible that such tales were thought necessary to embellish the truth when spices came from places as yet undiscovered by Europeans in the Far East, being transported unimaginable distances over oceans, deserts and mountains. Perhaps that was the trouble: the Garden of Eden [thought to be somewhere just south of Jerusalem at the centre of the world] was easier for the medieval mind to deal with compared to thousands of miles of uncharted land- and seascape.
Spices at a medieval market in Archeon, Netherlands

Ginger, the first item on Countess Eleanor’s shopping list, came from India, as she tells us, but it originated in China and is thought to have been grown in tubs aboard the great sea-going Chinese junks and eaten by the crews to stave off scurvy – although ginger only contains modest amounts of the vital vitamin C necessary to do this. Ginger was used as a medicine in both Chinese and Indian cultures and the Chinese were eager to exchange their home-grown spice for Indian pepper. Muslim physicians eagerly made use of ginger which was thought to reduce bleeding after injury or childbirth and it quickly spread west into Europe. Its extensive use in medieval cookery was because various medical remedies containing ginger tasted so good they were adapted for special-occasion recipes.
Pepper was always the most important spice. In fact, in medieval England, grocers who sold spices and all kinds of dry goods, including currants, sultanas, dried cherries and apricots, candied fruits and citrus peel, nuts, sugar and rice were known as ‘pepperers’ because pepper was their main money-making commodity. The pepperers formed one of the very earliest companies in London, their guild receiving its royal warrant in 1180. Isidore of Seville, who died in 636 AD, knew peppercorns came from India but believed they were naturally white. However, because the forests of the Malabar coast, where the pepper vines clambered up trees like ivy, were infested with venomous snakes, the underbrush had to be burned to drive off the reptiles before the berries could be harvested. It was the fire that turned the berries black, according to Isidore. 
Pepper was known in forms other than the dried berries of peppercorns. The countess could have bought long pepper which was known in Ancient Persia. Long pepper is a little hotter than peppercorns but with a similar flavour. It looks rather like catkins but is actually a spike of tiny fruits. It grows in the Himalayan region of northern India. Pliny, a Roman who wrote in the first century AD, said long pepper cost four times more than black peppercorns. He had no liking for peppercorns and couldn’t see the point in bringing them all the way from distant India at such great expense. 
Grains of Paradise (Aframomum melegueta)

Long Pepper (Piper longum)

Grains of Paradise were another available peppery spice believed, like cinnamon [see below] to come from the Garden of Eden – hence the name – although it grows in the swamps of West Africa. It isn’t a pepper at all but belongs to the ginger family. Oddly, there seem to have been two similar spices, both peppery in taste and looking much the same, but medieval literature has one type used as an aphrodisiac and the other to reduce monks’ libidinous inclinations. Can these possibly be the same spicy seeds? Cubebs were yet another option if the countess wanted something peppery. They are dried berries with the stalks attached and have a slightly bitter after taste but was popular with medieval diners. This spice came from even farther away than India or Sri Lanka, from the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra

Cinnamon bark had been used in Ancient Egypt, as a perfume rather than as a food seasoning. The Egyptians believed it came from the mysterious Land of Punt – probably Ethiopia or Somalia – but the climate in those parts of north-western Africa isn’t suitable for the evergreen cinnamon tree, so it must have been imported from elsewhere. Herodotus, a Greek writing in the fifth century BCE, admitted that he didn’t know where it came from but he’d heard a strange story about harvesting the spice as told by the Arabs. They said that cinnamon sticks were brought to Arabia by large birds to be used as nesting material but the birds always built their nests on inaccessible mountain tops. The local people would butcher oxen and leave them for the birds to feed on. The birds preferred and had strength enough to carry the oxen back to their cinnamon nests but the weight of the carcasses would cause the nests to collapse and fall down the mountain. The locals could then collect up the cinnamon sticks. The bark – the important bit – was then stripped off the sticks and rolled into ‘quills’.  
Theophrastus [died 287 BCE], a colleague of Aristotle, would be known as a botanist today. He told another story about cinnamon, though he warns the reader that it’s probably a fable. According to this version, cinnamon trees grow in valleys swarming with poisonous serpents so those who collect the bark must protect their hands and feet from snake bite. Having gathered the precious bark, they divide it into equal portions – one for each collector who risked their life, reserving another portion for the Sun. The Sun’s portion they leave behind and Sun promptly consumes it in fire. 
Pliny said that wherever cinnamon grew, it was protected by terrifying bats. However, he thought this story was simply invented by the cinnamon dealers so they could charge a higher price. In fact, in Roman and medieval times, cinnamon was worth more than its weight in gold. The true source of the spice was Sri Lanka, the large island off the southern tip of India but it was used in ancient China, Indonesia, as well as across the Roman Empire. Just to show off his wealth, the Emperor Nero burnt a year’s supply of cinnamon on his wife’s funeral pyre. You can see why the Countess of Leicester wanted to serve it at her Easter feast to impress the bishops.
The countess had mace on her shopping list but not nutmeg. However, both spices come from the fruit of the same tree. Rare in medieval times, the nutmeg tree was native to only a couple of the tiny Banda Islands. These islands, now part of Indonesia, are too small to appear on any but large-scale maps and lie a thousand miles farther east than Java. What a journey these two spices had made! The nutmeg is the nut itself which is surrounded by a red lacy membrane within an outer skin. The dried membrane is mace. Although both Theophrastus and Pliny mention ‘macis’, from their descriptions the Greek seems to be referring to cubebs and the Roman to cinnamon. 
Mace from the red ‘Aril’ surrounding nutmeg seed

Nutmeg fruit

The first authentic reference comes from the imperial Byzantine court in the sixth century AD. The rest of Europe certainly had nutmeg by the twelfth century when it was used to sweeten the smelly streets of Rome for a royal visit. In fourteenth-century England, Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, tells of ‘notemugge’ being added to improve the taste of ale that was past its best. Nutmeg was used medically as it has antiseptic properties and was believed to be good for the brain. In fact, the spice contains elements which the human body converts to amphetamine-type compounds so you could ‘get high’ on too much nutmeg. It can also abort unwanted pregnancies as well as treating indigestion and wind.  
Cloves, not mentioned in the countess’s shopping list but another popular medieval spice, are dried flower buds and were known about almost two millennia before Christ in Ancient Babylon. It was believed that cloves created such a great heat that nothing could grow around the clove trees. Also, if you stored cloves alongside anything moist, the heat would dry it out or even evaporate a jug of water. In the beginning, cloves only grew in the Spice Islands of Indonesia, now known as Maluku. A journey of seven thousand miles brought them to England, having crossed the Indian Ocean by Arab dhow, up the Red Sea to Syria or Alexandria where they traversed the Mediterranean into European hands. Transported over the Alps to the markets of Northern Europe, English merchants would import them back to London. After this, with exposure to salt seas, blistering sun, howling gales, rain and snow, it’s surprising that these spices had any taste left at all. No wonder the Countess of Leicester required eight pounds weight of pepper and six of cinnamon to flavour her impressive Easter feast.

Readers can find out far more about medieval lives, meet some of the characters involved and get a ‘taste’ of the food of the time in How to Survive in Medieval England, my new book from Pen & Sword, published on 30th June 2021 and available for pre-order now on Amazon.    

Connect with Toni

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for www.MedievalCourses.com and created the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons.

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