Following on from last week’s post about things that could be used in the fourteenth century to add flavour to food, and a short discussion on Twitter, today’s post is about pepper and salt. They are the most popular condiments used to season food in England these days, but was that the case in the fourteenth century?
Unless someone had a salt pan or brine well on their land, both salt and pepper had to be purchased. They were not things which could be obtained locally and had to be bought at markets.
Salt was a necessity for making bread and for preserving meat. This meant that everyone, except for a few people living in towns, had to purchase it in quantity.
In England salt mostly came from salt marshes along the coast. The marshes were turned into salt pans from which water would evaporate. What remained after evaporation was raked out so that it could dry completely, leaving salt. Despite England having a very long coastline, there were not enough salt marshes to serve the whole population and salt had to be imported from France and Italy.
There were also brine wells in Cheshire, which provided salt to the Midlands and to the north of England.
As well as enhancing its flavour, salt was also used for preserving food. In poorer households animals were killed at the beginning of winter. Some meat would be eaten straightaway, but what was left would be salted so that it would last until the beginning of Lent. Fish were salted or smoked for transportation inland. Most of the fish eaten, especially during Lent, was salted.
Pepper was the cheapest and most used spice and those two things are probably related. Pepper was grown on the western coasts of the south of India and Sri Lanka. It had to travel a great distance to reach England and was, therefore, very expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford it. It cost 20 to 22 pennies to buy a pound of pepper. A skilled labourer earned about 4 pennies a day and had far more important things to spend his money on than pepper.
The journey from India would have been over land and sea and would have taken time. It’s probable that the pepper had lost a lot of its flavour by the time it reached an English kitchen.
It was not unknown for pepper to be dampened to increase its weight when it was sold. Not only did this mean that the purchaser had less pepper than he thought, but it was also likely to go off very quickly.
Pepper, like herbs, could be used to disguise the sourness of ale on the turn. Fortunately, I can’t quite imagine what that must have tasted like.