Spice Rack American Mid-West 1930s
© Poppet McGimsie
The pursuit of Spices had a profound impact on human history. Such a great impact, in fact, that there are already entire books, academic treatises and websites dedicated just to Spices, negating the need for to recount here the (genuinely interesting) history of Spice caravans in the 8th century.
It's hard to define what is a Spice. Some people call a sesame seed a Spice; others include herbs, and flavourings such as vanilla. The items that most people think of as Spices, though, generally tend to grow in tropical areas and won't grow in temperate zones (e.g. the Northern Hemisphere), while herbs will grow in temperate zones. (Caraway, celery and mustard seeds would be good exceptions, being Spices that can grow in Europe.) Spices can be almost any part of a plant: the bark, the seed, the fruit, the bud, the root, the flower, even a secretion from the plant.
One thing's for sure: as far as Spices are concerned, we are living in a totally unique time in human history. In 5,000 years of Spices, only in the last 100 years or so -- let's say since the early 1900s -- has the great unwashed like you and me been able to afford them. The pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg that we take for granted were only for our betters -- the Rockefellers and Medicis throughout the ages. To jazz up our bland food, you and I would only have had access to what we could grow or gather for free locally. "Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" is beloved to us because of the 20th century singers Simon & Garfunkel, but the song is far older, dating to the late Middle Ages, and those herbs would have been beloved in daily life because they could be grown at the back doorstep. Other flavourings that we commoners might have had access to would be caraway, mint, mustard and onions.
A common myth repeated too easily is that Medieval meat was always served highly Spiced, and that it was served like this to cover up the fact that it was usually rotten. This doesn't stand up to a bit of thought, let alone a bit of research. All across Europe, every city and market town required butchers to sell meat within 1 day of slaughtering in the summer, and 3 days in the winter -- with the stocks and pillories, and then suspension of trading rights, waiting for any butcher who broke the law. No butcher wanted to lose his trading rights: it was the most lucrative of the trades to be in, as meat was very expensive. This meant that only the very rich could afford it, and when they did get it, it was good quality. But let's say that some illegal, spoiled meat did get flogged off cheap to the poor in dark side streets: even so, it wouldn't have been they who were masking the taste with saffron, ginger and pepper: not when ounce for ounce, such Spices were worth their weight in gold.
The wealthy did Spice up their meat, but it wasn't to disguise the quality. Medieval thinking believed that all foods were combinations of moisture, dryness, cold and warmth. Eating food balanced in these elements would keep the body healthy. As an example, beer was believed to contain cold and dry elements. Boiling meat would moisten it to balance the dryness, and serving it with very piquant sauces would warm up its coldness. Spices were more than flavouring: they were tied in with the Medieval understanding of eating healthily.
Food historians are now pointing out, however, that even food at the wealthiest tables might not have been as heavily Spiced as we had earlier supposed. Medieval cooks only wrote down ingredients, not quantities. Think how daunting the simplest curry recipe might seem without knowing that the Spices called for are only by teaspoon and half-teaspoonfuls.
The trek was long and slow, through heat and humidity, and the packaging for the spices wouldn't have been hermetically sealed jars or foil envelopes. It's hard to imagine that the spices would have arrived in Europe as fresh as we are used to getting them today. If it's conceivable that spices in the Middle Ages would have arrived in consumers' hands far less potent, this could be proferred as a partial explanation for the use of spice in quantities that seem larger than we would use today of our fresher spices.
In the 1300s, Europeans began sailing to the East again to trade for Spices. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English fought for control during the 1400s, 1500s and 1600s. Prices declined slowly during the first half of the 1800s as the famous Yankee trading ships brought Americans into the business. By the end of the 1800s, the American genius for mass-volume, lower-priced goods had cinnamon and nutmeg appearing in every apple pie recipe.
Columbus would have made our lives a good deal easier had he thought to bring with him a botanist or even an amateur plant enthusiast. Someone, anyone, with even a rudimentary knowledge of plants or the Spices he was commissioned to find. But oh, no; that would have made too much sense. Instead, to this day we live with the results of their confusion and misnaming of the Spices (and fruit and vegetables) they did find in the New World.