The Use of Spices in the Middle Ages: How Food was Flavoured in Medieval Times

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Many Herbs and Spices Came From Ordinary Gardens

From common spices such as cinnamon, to exotic and expensive flavourings like nutmeg and saffron, there were spices to suit every purse and palate in the Middle Ages, an era when the flavour of food was appreciated and extremely important.

How Spices Were Used in Cooking During the Middle Ages

Unlike nowadays, spices were often passed around during a meal, rather than being added during the cooking process. This meant that each person could tailor his or her dish to their own particular needs and tastes.

Very expensive spices were kept under lock and key, with the master or mistress of a household controlling access to these. Spices which had been brought into a country from overseas, which in Europe in medieval times, often meant imported from Asia and the Middle East, were costly and were used sparingly or only on special occasions.

Salt was one of the most costly spices and its use was restricted to wealthy families; the only people who could afford it. Even here, it would usually just be those on the top table at a feast who could have access to salt, everyone else was ‘below the salt’ and unable to use it.

Trading Centres for Spices in the Middle Ages

Although most people bought spices from their local market, those spices had often travelled miles, from the Middle East and Asia. Some crusaders to the Holy Land brought back spices with them, trying to replicate food they had tried whilst en route to Jerusalem.

Trade in spices had been carried out since at least 2,000 years before the birth of Christ and so, the market was well established by the medieval era. Cities such as Cairo, Jerusalem and Baghdad sold spices in large quantities to medieval traders, who would in turn bring these spices across the Mediterranean to European trading ports, where they would then be transported to inland shops and markets for sale to the public. Venice was the most important trading centre for spices coming into Europe and held a virtual monopoly across the continent, making this port a wealthy and influential trading centre.

The Use of Spices for Health and Hygiene in Medieval Times

Although spices were used most usually for cooking, some spices did have other domestic uses. Cinnamon and liquorice were particularly popular for oral hygiene, with liquorice root chewed for fresh breath and cinnamon used both as a breath freshener and in place of soap.

Saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the Middle Ages, was highly prized as a medicine and was believed to treat coughs, breathing problems and liver and kidney infections.

Sources:

  1. Weiss Adamson, Melitta Food in Medieval Times [Greenwood, 2004]
  2. Turner, Jack Spice: The History of Temptation [Harper, 2005]
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