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With winter upon us, who doesn’t feel like cozying up to a warm fire and drinking a hot gently spiced tea? Who doesn’t associate this time of the year with cinnamon and all the other “seasonal” spices?
The warming spices of winter have filled the marketplaces of Europe since the time of the Crusades, brought over largely by Arab spice traders through Venice from the distant Eastern lands. Venetian merchants took advantage of their geographical position halfway between the Levant and Western Europe by charging high premium fees as the middlemen in the spice trade.
From their initial introduction to Medieval Europe, the popularity of spices grew as more and more people acquired a taste for their exotic flavors. These spices, which traveled the secret and often dangerous and disputed trade routes (land and sea), were very expensive and only the very wealthy could purchase and use them.
Since the Medieval times, a lot a has changed. Today, these once very expensive spices are more widely grown and more readily available at affordable prices in our local grocery stores, thank goodness.
Ginger is originally from China, but it quickly spread to India where it is a widely used culinary spice. It first appeared in Europe through Roman soldiers traveling from the East. It disappeared from use in Europe and then reappeared when Marco Polo brought it back from his travels to the East.
In the Middle Ages, 1/2 kg of ginger was the equivalent of one sheep in terms of payment.
Ginger is highly popular and widely used in India where it is used in gravies, pulses, curries and teas /coffees. It is also used for gastrointestinal problems, colic, dyspepsia, flu prevention and in a pulse for headaches, among other uses.
Cinnamon is native to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Burma and has a rather colorful history. As far back as 2,000 years, it was traded throughout the Middle East. Later it was brought to Europe from the Levant through Venice by mainly Arab traders and also crusaders returning from the crusades. The transportation of cinnamon was very costly which made it available only to those of very wealthy means. It became a status symbol in Europe as it was associated with wealth.
Demand for cinnamon became so great that explorers set out to find where it came from. Eventually, they discovered cinnamon growing in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). From there, cinnamon and Ceylon became the center of much power grabbing and enslavement of the local people.
There are two main types of cinnamon consumed in the world: Ceylon cinnamon and cassia (from Indonesia). Cassia cinnamon is the cinnamon we typically use. it is stronger smelling and cheaper than the Ceylon variety. Cinnamon is quite common in cooking and baking and it has effective medicinal properties: anti-clotting, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and is effective at controlling blood sugar.
Cloves are a very ancient spice native to the Moluccas (The Spice Islands) and were introduced into India in the 1800s. Cloves were also highly prized by the Romans. In the 16th and 17th centuries, cloves were considered one of the most highly prized spices, particularly in Europe and were said to be worth more than their weight in gold. Naturally, they were a focus of a power struggle between the competing European nations (the Dutch the Spanish and the Portuguese), even to the point of the Dutch burning down the trees in areas under the control of competing nations. Natives of the islands were irate at this disregard for their traditions.
Cloves are an underestimated spice today, but they are medicinally powerful. some of their properties are: ant-fungal.anti-sceptic,ant-bacterial, anti-spasmodic, and analgesic. They have traditionally been used for nausea, coughs, digestion, dental hygiene among other uses.
Nutmeg is a spice native to the Banda Islands (Spice islands of Indonesia) and, like cinnamon and cloves, was a target for power struggles between the competing European nations. Although it is widely available at affordable prices today, this was not always the case. In fact, a small bag of nutmeg would have set the owner for life, financially speaking.
Nutmeg, like the other spices, was introduced into Europe (where it was highly prized) through Venice by Arab spice traders. Fashion conscious men and women of the 18th century would have the habit of carrying whole nutmegs inside little graters to always have it fresh and available. Today, nutmeg is grown more widely, particularly in the Carribean where it is found to have affinities with rum as well as chocolate.
There is archeological evidence that India was using and trading pepper at least 2,000 years ago. Most likely, they were trading with Egypt as evidence shows peppercorns in the Egyptian tombs. Romans had latched onto the peppercorn trade by 40 A.D and were using it as currency in negotiation. Arabs, the dominant spice traders, fabricated myths about the origin and dangers of harvesting pepper in order to maintain prices.
Pepper grew to become one of the most important trading commodities in Europe. Traders and middlemen exacted exorbitant premiums to their European customers. Today pepper is more widely grown and the world’s biggest producer of pepper is Vietnam.
A Couple of Medieval Recipes
- 4 thick slices of white bread
- 225 g of honey
- A pinch of (each) ground ginger, ground cinnamon, ground black pepper
- 15 g of pine nuts
Toast bread well and cut into squares. place bead squares on a serving plate or dish. Heat honey in a saucepan with the spices and the ground pepper for 2 min. Be careful not to bring to a boil. Pour over the bread and sprinkle the pine nuts.
Typically served in the morning and evening. Was usually thickened with eggs. Here is another version which was also used, using almonds to thicken.
- 275 ml of water
- 850 ml of white wine
- 2.5 g ground almonds
- 1 tsp of honey
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- pinch of salt
- a few shards of saffron
Heat water and wine to a boil. Add almonds, honey, ginger, and stir in saffron. Remove from heat for 20 min. and then return to a boil. Serve hot in large mugs or bowls.
Spices are amazing and bring flavor and “piquant” to our food and drinks. They are certainly very welcome as winter approaches. Their history is just as colorful and “piquant” as their flavors are. I hope you enjoy “spicy” the recipes from the Medieval times. Cheers!
Have a great day.
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Diana Lynne’s passions are family, travel, self-improvement, living a debt-free/financially free life. She also loves hanging out with family, friends and being with her dog Skye. You can connect with her through Livingandstuff.ca