Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Spice and Status

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Spice and Status

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "The Medieval Taste for Spices" by Paul Freedman, in Historically Speaking, Sept.-Oct. 2008.

THE CUISINE OF THE MIDDLE Ages, with its tincture of ambergris and malaguetta, may not inspire many start-up restaurants, but the long-held explanation for the powerful flavors of the age turns out to be a historical myth. Meat during the period was not so rancid that its taste had to be masked with spices, writes Paul Freedman, a Yale historian. Any medieval lord rich enough to afford spices could easily have bought fresh meat.

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Spices were both the status symbols and high-yield investments of their day. Expensive and coveted, they were the mark of a wealthy household. Outrageously profitable, spices drove Europeans to their first overseas adventures. Pepper purchased in India for three Venetian ducats could fetch 80 ducats in Europe. Christopher Columbus was on the trail not only of gold and silk but also spices when he set off for what became America. The purpose of procuring spices, however, was not to mask the taste of bad meat, but rather to infuse good meat with the sweet-sour flavor that was the epitome of the fashionable cooking of the era.

Cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar, now most commonly used in desserts, seasoned the main courses at medieval banquets. They were paired with a selection of peppers, including African malaguetta, Indian long pepper, and galangal--the strong spice now known mainly through Thai cooking, to flavor thin sauces often based on almond milk. …

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