Nothing says winter like a steaming mug of mulled wine or a pumpkin-spiced latte. But did you know that the spice mix that gives both drinks their signature holiday flavor originated in the European medieval courts during the 14th and 15th centuries? From Denmark to Italy and England to Romania, a taste for expensive spices distinguished the palates of the rich and powerful from those of the layfolk, who only had access to blander foods.
Poudre fort or “strong powder” was a popular medieval spice mixture of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and pepper, recalling the 13th century Moorish pairings from the Andalusian Cookbook, which can be traced back much further to their North African and Middle Eastern origins. Variations of this potent medieval mixture called for saffron, mace, cubeb, long peppers and grains of paradise. Cloves were imported from Indonesia’s Maluku Islands; cinnamon from Sri Lanka. Similar to black peppercorn, Indian long peppers are hotter and spicier, which made them suitable for mulled wines. Meanwhile, the fragrant West African grains of paradise, favored for their subtle heat in gingerbreads and peacock sauces, were a less expensive substitute to black peppercorn which had to be imported from the Far East.
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"Poudre fort or 'strong powder' was a popular medieval spice mixture of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and pepper..."
Spices and Cookbooks
It is important to note that access to both spices and cookbooks were reserved for the privileged class during the Middle Ages. Very few recipes were ever recorded for the layfolk. Contemporary texts suggest that they survived mostly on dark bread, porridge and root vegetables. Meanwhile, the wealthy enjoyed dishes like stuffed pike with saffron, turbot with cinnamon sauce, and chicken served with bitter oranges and nutmeg found in the 14th century German cookbook, Buch von Guter Spise, or even ginger-infused pheasant found in the 15th century English Arundel cookbook.
Spectacle was also a key element of the extravagant feasts that took place in medieval courts and castles. Game and fowl were often the main centerpiece dishes, sometimes redressed in their own feathers for decoration. Perhaps one of the most elaborate dishes I’ve come across has been the cockentrice, whereby the front end of a suckling pig was stuffed and stitched onto the rear end of a capon (a castrated rooster) and then roasted.
"History has it that the cockentrice was a favorite of England’s King Henry VIII, for whom it was served gilded in a mixture of egg yolks, ginger, saffron and parsley juice."
Lent "Fast Days"
The Catholic church imposed abstinence from meat products on Fridays during Lent, though fish was allowed. In fact, fishing played a significant role in the lives of those in countries along the North and Atlantic Seas. Medieval cookbooks are filled with recipes for fresh and saltwater fish, not excluding whales and porpoises. But for most, these “fast days” meant coming up with tasty vegetable alternatives like a “compost soup” of root vegetables, cabbage, currants, vinegar and spices.
Le Menagier de Paris
One Lent recipe for Cod with Crayfish and Peas comes to us from the late 14th century Le Menagier de Paris, also known as The Good Wife’s Guide: A Medieval Household Book. Penned anonymously in the voice of a wealthy Parisian teaching his 15-year-old bride the proper conduct for running their bourgeoisie household, this manual features over 380 recipes for all occasions. Perfect for the fast days, cod, crayfish and peas were staple foods of the medieval French diet and good protein alternatives to meat. In this particular recipe, the ingredients are enhanced by the popular poudre fort mixture of ginger, cinnamon, cloves and grains of paradise.
(Top image: "The feast of the peacock" from The Book of the Conquests and Deeds of Alexander, 15th century.)