Having diverted into experiments with pottage, twice, it’s time to get back to spices. A couple of weeks ago we established that only the very wealthy could afford spices. Spices were expensive because they had to travel vast distances to reach England.
It was not just the spices themselves which were expensive, but also the equipment needed to grind them. Depending on how finely they had to be ground, this could be a pestle, made out of a hard metal, and a stone or a hand-mill.
In the mid-twelfth century, when there was a reform movement in the church, spices were held by some, including Bernard of Clairvaux, to be against nature and God, since they changed the natural flavour of food into something else. For most people this made no difference, since they couldn’t afford to buy spices.
It was only after the Black Death that the less well-off bought spices more often. By the second half of the fourteenth century, it was becoming easier to transport spices to Europe and those who survived the Black Death were slightly better off economically than their parents and grandparents had been.
By the 1390s those who could afford to eat meat most often were able to eat it very heavily spiced. The amount of spices used may reflect the time it took for them to arrive from Asia rather than a taste for spicy food. As we saw with pepper, a pound of ginger in England would not have as much flavour as it had when it left Asia, due to the length of the journey.
Much of the fish and meat eaten in the fourteenth century was salted or dried and spices were prized because they could disguise the tastes caused by these methods of preservation. Forget the idea that their function was to make tainted meat more palatable. No matter how much care you took to wash it out, salted fish and meat tasted salty.
Most spices travelled by sea to Europe, where they were deposited in Venice for onward transport. At this time the trade in spices was in the hands of Arabs, Indians and Chinese until the spices reached Venice. Spices were not imported directly into England from their point of origin, but had to be purchased from merchants who had purchased them from other merchants and so on back to Venice.
How expensive were spices? At the beginning of the fifteenth century a pound of cinnamon or ginger cost 3 to 5 days’ wages of a craftsman. A pound of cardamom was about 4 ½ days’ wages. A pound of cloves was 6 days’ wages. Prices were not stable and could vary considerably from one year to another.
Since they were so expensive, no one wanted to waste them. In the 1390s an elderly Parisian wrote some guidance about household management for his young wife. His book contains recipes and instructions about how to ensure that money spent on spices is not wasted. If spices and bread were to be ground, he wrote, the spices should be ground first and then the bread, so that any spices left behind would be incorporated into the breadcrumbs.
Which spices were used and where did they come from? Cinnamon came from Ceylon. Cloves were from Indonesia. A well as flavouring food and wine, they were used by apothecaries. They have a long history of being useful for people with toothache. Cubebs came from Java. Ginger originated in China. It came to England in a dried form or preserved in sugar. As well as flavouring food, it was used in wine. Nutmeg came from a single island in Indonesia. In the seventeenth century the Dutch almost wiped out the inhabitants of the island because they were desperate to control the production, and sales, of nutmeg. Mace is the outer skin of nutmeg. Saffron originally came from Asia, but it was grown in Catalonia from the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century saffron was grown in England, in Cornwall and Essex, where it’s mostly associated with Walden, later renamed Saffron Walden. Saffron was used for colouring and flavouring food and for dying fabric and in medicines. It was, and is, fabulously expensive. At the beginning of the fifteenth century it cost between 8 and 11 times more than pepper.