Spices Used in Medieval Cuisine

Spices were among the most luxurious products available in the Middle Ages, the most common being black pepper, cinnamon (and the alternative cassia), cumin, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.

They all had to be imported from plantations in Asia and Africa, which gave them social cachet such that pepper for example was hoarded, traded and conspicuously donated.

It has been estimated that around 1,000 tons of pepper and 1,000 tons of the other common spices were imported into Western Europe each year during the late Middle Ages. The value of these goods was the equivalent of a yearly supply of grain for 1.5 million people.

While pepper was the most common spice, the most exclusive, though not the most obscure in its origin, was saffron, used as much for its vivid yellow-red color as for its flavor, for according to the humours, yellow signified hot and dry, valued qualities; turmeric provided a yellow substitute, and touches of gilding at banquets supplied both the medieval love of ostentatious show and Galenic lore: at the sumptuous banquet that Cardinal Riario offered the daughter of the King of Naples in June 1473, the bread was gilded.[

Among the spices that have now fallen into obscurity are grains of paradise, a relative of cardamom which almost entirely replaced pepper in late medieval north French cooking, long pepper, mace, spikenard, galangal and cubeb.

Sugar, unlike today, was considered to be a type of spice due to its high cost and humoral qualities.[ Few dishes employed just one type of spice or herb, but rather a combination of several different ones. Even when a dish was dominated by a single flavorer it was usually combined with another to produce a compound taste, for example parsley and cloves or pepper and ginger.

Common herbs such as sage, mustard, and parsley were grown and used in cooking all over Europe, as were caraway, mint, dill and fennel. Many of these plants grew throughout all of Europe or were cultivated in gardens, and were a alternative to exotic spices. Mustard was particularly popular with meat products and was described by Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) as poor man's food. While locally grown herbs were less prestigious than spices, they were still used in upper-class food, but were then usually less prominent or included merely as coloring. Anise was used to flavor fish and chicken dishes, and its seeds were served as sugar-coated comfits.

Surviving medieval recipes frequently call for flavoring with a number of sour, tart liquids. Verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes or fruits) vinegar and the juices of various fruits, especially one those with tart flavors were almost universal and a hallmark of late medieval cooking. In combination with sweeteners and spices, it produced a distinctive "pungeant, fruity" flavor.

Equally common, and used to complement the tanginess of these ingredients, were (sweet) almonds. They were used in a variety of ways: whole, shelled or unshelled, slivered, ground and, most importantly, processed into almond milk. This last type of non-dairy milk product is probably the single most common ingredient in late medieval cooking and blended the aroma of spices and sour liquids with a mild taste and creamy texture.

Salt was a ubiquitous and indispensable in medieval cooking. Salting and drying was the most common form of food preservation and meant that especially fish and meat were often heavily salted. Many medieval recipes specifically warn against oversalting and there were recommendations for soaking certain products in water to get rid of excess salt.

Salt was present during more elaborate or expensive meals. The richer the host, and the more prestigious the guest, the more elaborate would be the container in which it was served and the quality and price of the salt. Wealthy guests were provided with salt cellars made of pewter, precious metals or other fine materials, often intricately decorated. The rank of a diner also decided how finely ground and white the salt was. Salt for cooking, preservation or for use by common people was coarser; sea salt, or "bay salt", in particular, had more impurities, and was described in colors ranging from black to green.