History of Spices
Spices had an important place in ancient and medieval cooking. Medical theories about diet and health overlapped with taste preferences. The recipes of classical Greece and Rome favor sharp flavors, while those of the Middle Ages result in dishes that are sweeter and more perfumed. Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the Americas circulated the chili pepper whose acceptance was considerably greater in Asia and Africa than in Europe. The origins of modern European cuisine can be identified in changes led by France during the seventeenth century. Among the key shifts was the displacement of spices in sauces and their general decline in all manner of recipes. Britain and North America retained a certain affection for spices through the cuisine of foreigners – Indian and Mexican restaurants, for example. Some of this love of the piquant has now spread through culinary globalization.
This essay looks at the history of spices, particularly in Europe and North America. Most of the spices used in cooking come from tropical countries that have extensive and complex culinary cultures. From the ancient and medieval European perspective, the places that supplied precious and expensive spices were distant and exotic, even magical. India was the most important of the Asian lands where spices were reputed to be abundant. This version of India combined real and imagined attributes, rivers of jewels, hot climate, naked wise men, and proximity to the Garden of Eden, but also cobras and semi-human people, some with dog heads, others with no head at all but faces in their chests. A venerable legend, going back to the seventh-century AD, has it that there are vast pepper forests in India infested with poisonous snakes. The only way to obtain the pepper is to burn the trees, driving out the snakes. This explains why pepper is black and shriveled and why it is costly, because in order to have another harvest, a completely new set of trees has to mature (Freedman 2008, pp. 133–134). The coexistence of attractive and disturbing exoticism is typical of the image of Asia in European eyes and the allure of its precious aromatic products.
European attempts to discover where spices came from constituted a long research campaign that would transform the world, beginning in the sixteenth century. European colonization of the Americas resulted in some incremental additions to the list of spices, most importantly the many kinds of chili peppers. These would have a greater impact on India, Indochina, and Africa than on Europe where by the eighteenth century, the use of all spices in cooking was declining because of changes in gastronomic taste and the image of spices as luxuries.
The Repertoire of Spices
Spices have historically been distinguished from herbs. While employed in similar ways as spices, herbs are domestic European products. Gathered from gardens, forests, and hedgerows, herbs fetched modest prices. Spices, however, were once valuable mainstays of international trade. In the medieval era, they were sold in small amounts at high prices by apothecaries rather than alongside routine cabbages or fish in food markets. Indeed, their value was so great as to stimulate extremely risky expeditions to find their native habitat.
Spices were imported aromatics derived from roots, resins, fruit, or bark. Because of the distance they had to traverse, they had to be nonperishable, at least in the short to medium term. Some spices such as nutmeg or black pepper release their flavor when ground so that they will keep a long time until they are pulverized. A pharmaceutical text of the eleventh century known as Circa instans and its later French version, the Livre des simples médecines, states that nutmeg will last for 7 years and peppercorns for 40 (Freedman 2008, p. 123). In other cases, such as ginger, the spice must have arrived in Europe dried up and deteriorated in comparison with its condition when it was harvested. Saffron was exceptional as it was among the most valuable and durable spices but could be grown in Europe. In the Middle Ages, when the use of saffron was all the rage, the major saffron suppliers were Catalonia and Tuscany.
If we look at products the term “spices” covered, we find that many are not the familiar edible substances we would expect but any relatively nonperishable commodity valuable enough that was profitable to transport even small amounts over long distances. Thus, what appear as spices in merchant manuals might include medicinal substances, perfumes, and even materials used for dyeing textiles. La pratica della mercatura, a medieval handbook of commerce composed around 1340, lists 288 so-called spices, classifying, for example, 14 kinds of alum, an inedible mineral used as dye fixative. The Florentine Baldassare Pegolotti, author of this manual, mentions some now mysterious spices such as vescovo (literally “bishop”) (Lopez and Raymond 1955, pp. 109–114). Marvelous drugs include “mummy” (mumia), a solidified secretion of embalmed corpses, considered a sovereign remedy for dysentery and bleeding, especially useful for treating wounds (Camille 1999, pp. 297–318). This too was a nonperishable import, usually but not exclusively from Egypt. Anything valuable in small quantities from far away might qualify as a spice, but here, since the discussion is about food and drink, we will limit ourselves to edible products.
Classical literature has many descriptions of feasts, but only one complete cookbook survives, that attributed to Apicius, a first-century Roman gastronome of whom Pliny the Elder said: “Apicius, the most gluttonous gorger of all spendthrifts, established the view that the flamingo’s tongue has a particularly fine flavor” (Pliny 1983, p. 133). The book, known as Apicius de re coquinaria, may have been put together around a core of recipes going back to the era of Apicius, but he seems to have been famous as an aficionado rather than as an author of recipes. The Latin style of the book indicates a considerably later compositions, probably at the end of the fourth or the early fifth century (Wilkins and Hill 2006, pp. 208–209). From the Greeks, there are no complete cookbooks, but information can be reconstructed from the discourses about food composed by Athenaeus of Naucratis who wrote in Greek and flourished around 200 AD. His Deipnosophistae (The Learned Banqueters) is an immensely long series of witty conversations about food, purportedly during a single banquet, the apotheosis of the sometimes-annoying habit of talking about other meals and food while dining. Athenaeus’ opinionated gentlemen recite snatches of poetic and philosophical texts that have allowed later scholars to put together pieces of otherwise lost works of Greek literature. For example, Athenaeus includes 62 excerpts from the lost cookbook of Archestratus, The Life of Luxury (Archestratus 2011).
Classical connoisseurs favored sharp, pungent herbs such as rue, thyme, and myrtle. Their favorite spices were pepper and silphium, a latter a plant that grew in what is now Libya. Silphium was a wild shrub, never domesticated, whose extinction by the first-century AD was due partly to bringing land under cultivation and partly to its excessive popularity. Its taste appears to have been strong, sharp, and sour as can be deduced from its replacement by the Indian spice asafetida, which Roman gourmands considered an adequate if imperfect substitute (Dalby 2000, pp. 17–19).
If silphium was the great exotic spice of ancient Greece and Republican Rome, pepper was the most sought-after spice of the Roman Empire. Archaeological exploration of sites along the Egyptian Red Sea coast has revealed extensive pepper importation from western India and aided by the predictable monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean. This trade was sometimes seen as disadvantageous to Rome, and critics bemoaned the love of luxury that induced the Empire to part with its treasure for gourmet frivolities. Pliny, again in the role of advocate for culinary simplicity, asked, “Who was the first to try it (pepper) with food? Who was so anxious to develop an appetite that hunger did not suffice?” Pepper (he continues) is neither sweet nor beautiful, merely pungent; nevertheless, men travel to India and spend gold and silver to acquire it (Pliny 1968, pp. 28–29). Goods from India were sold in Rome at 100 times their original value, Pliny estimated (Pliny 1947, p. 101).
The De re coquinaria mentions a large number of Mediterranean herbs along with imported spices such as ginger, peppers, coriander, and cumin. The recipes are exotic, even for their time, including unusual ingredients like flamingos, parrots, and sea urchins. There are six recipes for sow’s womb. The various sauces usually include herbs as well as pepper. A wine sauce to serve with truffles consists of pepper, lovage, coriander, rue, and honey along with the wine (Apicius 1936, p. 56).
Medieval culinary taste in comparison to that of the ancient world was for sweet rather than sharp spices. The medieval spice dossier was larger than that of the Roman Empire and included cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and sugar. Although not aromatic, sugar functioned as a spice because it was expensive, imported, and credited with medicinal as well as gastronomic uses. Information about these new spices as well as their supply was obtained via the Islamic world, which by 900 controlled North Africa, the Middle East, and the former Persian Empire and would soon incorporate much of India. Islamic traders handled the spice trade from Indonesia and South Asia as far as the Mediterranean.
Spices were not the only luxuries picked up by elites in Christian Europe from their perceived religious enemy. Silk clothing, inlaid metalwork (e.g., “damascened” steel), and perfume substances such as musk and ambergris were brought from Islamic civilization by Crusaders, Venetians, and other intermediaries to become items of high fashion. The use of spices as well as dried fruit, rosewater, almonds, and sugared sweets such as nougat suggests Islamic origin. There are very few actual correspondences between Arabic cookbooks and those of the medieval West, however. Wine and pork, forbidden to Muslims, were basic to Christian European cuisine. Even when the name of a dish was adopted, the European version often differed radically. North African ma’mūniyya was boiled rice with chicken and sugar, sometimes scented with camphor or musk. Across the Mediterranean, mawmeny or mamonia was a cold pudding made with almond milk and wine that contained raisins, spices, sugar, and ground chicken or mutton (Laurioux 2005, pp. 313–316).
Considerable Islamic influence seems, nevertheless, undeniable. Medieval cuisine tends to be more fragrant than that of the classical period and more oriented toward meat. Fish remained important in Catholic Europe because fasting regulations forbade meat during a considerable part of the year, almost half of the days according to some scrupulous observations, but meat was preferred. The prestige accorded in the Middle Ages to lamprey, which tastes like beef but qualified as a fish for fasting purposes, suggests how much esteem meat received (Freedman 2020).
A Cook they hadde with hem for the nones,
To boil the chiknes with the marybones,
And powdre-marchant tart and galingale.
Wel coude he knowe a draughte of London ale.
He coulde roste, and seethe, and broille, and frye,
Maken mortreux, and wel bake a pie. (Chaucer 1962, p. 423)
The tart poudre marchant is mysterious because it does not appear anywhere in medieval cookbooks.
The fourteenth-century Le Viandier, the most widely circulated medieval cookbook, lists what a chef should to have on hand by way of spices: long pepper, ginger, grains of paradise, mastic, saffron, “round” (i.e., black) pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cassia, and nutmeg. Individual recipes in the Le Viandier employ other spices such as cubeb, cardamom, and zedoary (Laurioux 1989, p. 40).
Pepper, ginger, sugar, and cinnamon were the most common imported spices during the Middle Ages, making up over 90% of those brought to Venice between 1394 and 1405, for example (Wake 1979, p. 396). What distinguished the truly wealthy from the merely comfortable classes was consumption of the most expensive spices such as cloves, saffron, nutmegs, and grains of paradise.
As is the case today in most countries whose cuisine includes a range of spices, mixtures were made up by spice merchants and used in recipes. Various combinations such as garam masala in modern India or ras-el-hanout (literally “the best of the shop”) in Morocco include certain defined ingredients, but each person’s blend is different. The skill of the cook is measured by expertise in mixing spices and timing their use while cooking. Although Chaucer’s poudre marchant is otherwise unattested, there were a number of widely recognized standard mixtures. Poudre blanche blended cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger; poudre fort involved black pepper or even more pungent long pepper in combination with sweet spices such as cinnamon and ginger; and poudre de duc (supposedly named after the Doge of Venice) used sugar in the same way as pepper in poudre fort, as a medium to be mixed with sweet spices, especially cinnamon (Scully 1988, p. 357; van Winter 2007, p. 384).
Medieval culinary preferences included combining sweet and sour ingredients, paying attention to color and employing sugar to flavor entrées. Recipes make considerable use of such products as almond milk while ignoring butter and present a repertoire of sauces that were primary vehicles for the use of spices.
There is some debate as to the quantities of spices used as the recipes are not specific. The immense amounts of spices bought for state occasions do not mean they were all to be applied to preparing dishes – many were given away as presents – yet the numbers are nonetheless impressive. For the marriage in 1475 of George, Duke of Bavaria-Landshut (known to contemporaries as “George the Rich”), 386 pounds of pepper were ordered, along with 286 lbs. ginger, 207 lbs. saffron, 205 lbs. cinnamon, 105 lbs. cloves, and 85 lbs. nutmeg (Freedman 2008, p. 6).
A household advice book of the late-fourteenth century known as the Ménagier de Paris is an unusual source of culinary information because the author was a member of the upper bourgeoisie, not a man of the highest rank, while most other medieval cookbooks are by court chefs. The author of the Ménagier wrote a private compendium intended for his young wife’s instruction rather than a work of public circulation designed to impress others. What is striking about the over 400 recipes in the Ménagier is not so much the quantity of spices as their ubiquity. Spices now relegated to dessert in European cuisine (cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg) appear in meat, fowl, and fish recipes. The author of the Ménagier is by no means recklessly extravagant. He recommends making sauce moutarde with spices that have already been used to flavor wine, aspic, or other sauces, showing thrift as well as enthusiasm for spices (Brereton and Ferrier 1994, p. 748).
A Catalan cookbook written shortly before 1500 by Mestre Robert, chef to the king of Naples, gives about 200 recipes of which 154 contain sugar, 125 cinnamon, 76 ginger, 54 saffron, and 48 pepper (Mestre Robert 1977). The presence of these ingredients in non-dessert dishes contrasts greatly with what would become the norm for European cuisines after about 1700 at the latest. Clearly, spices were consumed by the higher ranks of medieval society in great quantities, variety, and in all manner of preparations.
Medicine and Cooking
Although the focus of this article is the use of spices in gastronomy, something should be said about the overlapping considerations of health in relation to diet. In the ancient Mediterranean and in medieval Europe as well, spices, diet, and health were closely linked. The greatest classical authority on medicine, Galen (129–ca. 200 AD), was the author of On the Powers of Food. He distinguishes himself from mere cooks in that his primary aim as a physician is health and not pleasure. Many delicious things are bad for you, but Galen acknowledges that in order to induce people to follow a healthful dietary regimen, what doctors recommend must be at least moderately appealing (Wilkins and Hill 2006, pp. 10–11).
The distinction between cookery and medicaments remained uncertain, and it is sometimes hard to decide whether we are dealing with medical or culinary recipes. The Opusculum de saporibus of Maino de Maineri, dating from between 1330 and 1340, provides recipes for all manner of highly spiced sauces for meat, but it is what we would consider a medical handbook with warnings against excessive use of sauces by healthy people who really do not need them (Thorndike 1934, p. 186; Scully 1985). The author admits, however, that sauces were invented by those more interested in pleasure than health, so that although there is a border between medicine and cuisine, it is constantly being crossed.
The intersection of cuisine and health considerations is evident in the prevailing medieval theory of humors, the four fundamental bodily fluids that corresponded, it was thought, to the four basic elements (earth, water, fire, and air) and the four physical qualities, hot, cold, moist, and dry. The four humors were blood, yellow bile (also known simply as bile), black bile, and phlegm. Blood is linked to air and has warm and moist qualities. Yellow bile’s element is fire and it is hot and dry. Phlegm is cold and moist, just as water is. Black is cold and dry and corresponds to earth. Individuals must balance these, although no one is perfect. Everyone has a particular temperament favoring one of the four humors, but too much imbalance results in disease as well as distortions of personality (Scully 1995a, pp. 41–51).
Foods themselves possessed humoral properties, and so diet was supposed to be adjusted to the individual temperament. Some spices such as pepper were regarded as extremely hot, while others such as cinnamon were only moderately so. Spices were for the most part considered medically hot and dry, countering the excessive moisture and coldness inherent in many meats and fish and tempering other ingredients.
A person of melancholic humor should consume more hot and dry spices than one of bilious temperament who must avoid too much spice because he is already sufficiently or even excessively hot and dry. As already mentioned, lamprey, a migratory eel-like creature, was classified as a fish. As with eels (to which in modern scientific taxonomy it is not, in fact related), lamprey was supposed to be dangerous as well as delicious. Cold and moist in the fourth degree, lamprey needed to be cooked in such a way as to neutralize its perilous humoral properties. Black pepper sauce was recommended because pepper was hot and dry in the fourth degree (Flandrin 1999, pp. 320–327).
In the Opusculum de saporibus, there are classic culinary preparations such as green sauce (parsley, rosemary, breadcrumbs, white ginger, cloves, and vinegar) useful on boiled mutton, kid or veal, and black pepper sauce, which includes verjuice, pureed liver, toast, and, of course, pepper, appropriate for roast geese and aquatic fowl. The definition of “appropriate” for sauces involved both complementary taste and humoral balance.
In order for the tempering process to achieve equilibrium, the ingredients had to blend (Scully 1995b). Meat was better complemented by sauces when minced or ground up, one reason for the highly processed nature of medieval food preparation. Recipes seldom involve simple treatment but rather call for many steps that often render the ingredients unrecognizable. Typical of complex poultry dishes is a recipe from a fifteenth-century English cookbook for blaunche de sorre, which involves blanching and grinding almonds and combining them with sweet broth into which is put ground cooked capon. This mixture is then boiled in milk, sugar, and sweet wine (Hieatt 1988, p. 58).
Spices such as nutmeg or cinnamon that we associate with cooking were also key ingredients in medicines and preventives (Matthews 1980; Whittet 1968). The word “recipe” was applied to pharmaceutical as well as culinary preparations, and in most European languages other than English, the word for “prescription” and “recipe” is the same. Medieval pharmaceutical manuals offer directions for filling pomanders, portable openwork metal balls that carried aromatic products in order to counteract bad odors that were not only unpleasant but also thought to carry disease. Edible spices like nutmeg and cinnamon were included along with perfume ingredients. On the other hand, substances we think of as medicinal or cosmetic – ambergris, musk, camphor, or sandalwood – were added to food in imitation of Arab, Persian, and Indian practice. As late as the English Restoration era, eggs with ambergris were a luxurious and (supposedly) healthful favorite (Macaulay 1849, p. 442).
A longer-lasting aspect of the dual role of spices as both food and medicine is in the origins of candy. Like cordials (flavored alcohol distillations), candies began as digestive aids to be consumed after a meal. Sharp medicinal herbs could be rendered pleasant when made into a kind of brandy, as with some of the modern descendants of monastic concoctions such as Chartreuse or Bénédictine. Similarly, sugared spices, known as comfits, originated as ways of consuming spices directly, rather than as sauces to accompany food. Pharmacists made up medicines with sugar paste called electuaries, and one finds these being eaten as what might be considered after-dinner wellness treats. In Chrétien de Troyes’ twelfth-century romance Perceval, the hero arrives at the mysterious Grail Castle where a meal whose main course is peppered venison is followed by candied fruit, nutmegs, cloves, gingerbread, and electuaries. An example from real life, just before retiring into a conclave to elect a new pope, the cardinals at Avignon in 1371 ate 12 pounds of candied spices (Chrétien de Troyes 1991, pp. 421–422; Aliquot 1984, pp. 132–133).
Spices and Modern Cuisine
Modern European cuisine differs from that of the Middle Ages, rejecting the spectrum of complex and piquant flavors in favor of intensity and simplicity. Many Asian spices such as zedoary, long pepper, and galangal, all familiar to medieval cooks, were discarded. Modern cuisine and its turn away from spices began in seventeenth-century France with the development of what would become classic haute cuisine that was based on new principles. In particular, sauces were now rich, buttery meat reductions flavored with shallots, herbs, and truffles rather than the thin, sweet and sour spiced sauces of the Middle Ages. France, the trendsetter, became by the middle of the eighteenth century the undisputed guardian of culinary orthodoxy, a position it held until the end of the twentieth century. An important aspect of what has rightly been called a culinary “revolution” was to devalue spices.
Seventy percent of the English medieval recipes collected in a modern adaptation entitled Pleyn Delit call for some sort of spice, usually in combinations, and 27% of its recipes specifically require cinnamon. Compare this with François Massialot’s Cuisinier roial et bourgeois, published in 1691, which has cinnamon in only 8% of its recipes and is altogether lacking in such medieval requisites as saffron or grains of paradise (Hieatt et al. 1996; Flandrin 1992, pp. 177–192; Peterson 1994, pp. 195–196).
Sugar was segregated into a dessert course, but it would break out of the confines of conventional cooking and dining, accompanying chocolate, coffee, and tea, all unknown to the Middle Ages. No other edible commodity would have such a cataclysmic effect on world history as sugar. Insatiable European demand fueled the first great trans-Atlantic slave trade and made New World colonization tremendously profitable (Mintz 1985).
Black pepper also was an exception to the eclipse of spices, retaining some modest importance in French cuisine for savory dishes. Saffron shows up in a few Spanish preparations, in risotto alla Milanese and in the French monkfish recipe lotte au safran. Nutmeg is still used in Italian sauces. Modern European cuisine, however, relies on culinary effects that have nothing to do with spices.
The reformed French cuisine of the seventeenth century stressed harmony and smooth combinations of natural flavors. Simplicity, authenticity, intensity, and vividness were placed above what was seen as an unpleasant medieval fondness for the exotic, unusual, and complicated. In the cookbooks published by François Pierre La Varenne (Le cuisinier françois, 1651) and Nicolas de Bonnefons (Les délices de la campagne, 1656), “delicate” and “natural” cooking meant, in the first place, simplicity that depended not on spices or other distractions but on the actual quality of primary ingredients. This might include vegetables, which had been largely despised or ignored by medieval chefs. Typically, the new French simplicity was rather expensive and elaborate. The garden expert Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie identified 47 varieties of pears that, with the aid of hothouses and strategically positioned garden beds, could produce fruit every week between July and February. Bonnefons in Le Jardinier françois shows how to have cabbages ready to pick during 10 months of the year (Pinkard 2009, pp. 67–78).
Amidst all this attention to primary constituents of cooking, spices were attacked as covering up natural tastes, as childish, and even as “Arab.” The first criticism is part of a consistent oscillation in Western gastronomic history between nature and artifice, between simplifying in order to experience the beauty of fine ingredients and innovation in order to create never-before experienced taste sensations. Each in turn produces a counterreaction, rediscovering basic products or putting together daring and novel concepts.
The seventeenth century saw a turn toward natural flavor. In another treatise by Bonnefons, meaningfully entitled Les délices de la campagne (“The Delights of the Countryside”), the author instructs his reader: “Each food in its natural taste is more agreeable.” Thus, “A cabbage soup should taste entirely of cabbage, a leek soup of leeks….” (Pinkard 2009, p. 120).
“Childish” meant use of sugar in meat or other courses where it was now deemed inappropriate. Medieval taste had mingled sweet and savory flavors and spices in a way that resembles current Middle Eastern or North African cuisines. In seventeenth-century Europe, as has been mentioned, sugar was separated from savory courses, while spices considered sweet, such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, were likewise restricted to desserts.
Finally the supposedly “Arab” aesthetic reflects the degree to which medieval cookery had been influenced by the complex, perfumed, high-end cuisine of the Caliphate and its successors, but now this was a source of contempt for the reformers. The cookbook author known to posterity only by the initials L. S. R. in his L’art de bien traiter of 1674 criticized his predecessors for mixing fruit, meat, and spices (e.g., turkey with raspberries, frog legs with saffron). His withering judgment was that “[these] would be more willingly tolerated among the Arabs…than in a refined atmosphere such as ours, one of propriety, delicacy and good taste” (Wheaton 1983, pp. 150–151). The implications of this condemnation go beyond the historical connection between prestige cuisines during the Middle Ages to an identification of Europe and modernity itself with a virtuous yet elegant culinary aesthetic.
The modern sauces of seventeenth-century France were thickened with roux, egg yolks, and butter. Glossy and rich, they were not spicy and so differed in texture and flavor from the thin, grainy aromatic medieval sauces that used breadcrumbs as thickener. French sauces now incorporated juices produced by principal ingredients, supplemented by liquids such as bouillon, wine, cream, and they were flavored with herbs. Textured, silky, satiny, and velvety, these sauces were voluptuous because they included a lot of fat which magnifies flavor so that peas or asparagus in French sauces could still be said to taste of peas and asparagus. Rather than a humoral corrective as was the medieval practice, sauce here is supposed to enhance and intensify.
The triumph of French cuisine was not immediate, and much of the rest of Europe clung to the medieval and Renaissance practice of using spices extensively. In the second half of the seventeenth century, the French expressed contempt for other countries’ old-fashioned culinary customs. Criticism centered on excessive or inappropriate use of spices and sugar. Gaspard d’Hauteville resided for several years in Poland in the mid-seventeenth century, but never got used to its exotic and archaic food replete with saffron, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. French cookbooks sometimes described chicken with saffron as prepared “in the Polish style” (Pinkard 2009, p. 125). Italy and Provence too were suspect for their spicy and sweet sauces, and the Spanish, according the Countess of Aulnoy writing in 1691, were hopelessly addicted to perfumed food and saffron (Gillet 1985, pp. 159–167).
There are a number of possible reasons for this French revolt against more than a millennium of spiced foods and particularly spiced sauces, but no single cause is in itself convincing. Disenchantment with spices may have something to do with the arrival of new beverages coffee and tea from Asia and Africa, and chocolate from the New World. Unlike spices, these produced psychological effects through caffeine. Tobacco, not an edible but certainly a psychoactive New World product, might also have cut into the appeal of spices as a rather different aromatic delivery system. This would not, however, explain the continued attachment to spices outside of France, in places such as England whose aristocracy adopted most French innovations enthusiastically. The real counterexamples are the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic world generally where coffee had been known for centuries, and tobacco was rapturously welcomed, yet in these lands spices remained vital culinary ingredients.
New World Chilies and Their Diffusion
Western European disillusion with spices coincided with the worldwide influence of the major New World contribution to the world of spices, the variety of flavors from chili peppers. The European explorers were disappointed not to have found in the Americas the Asian spices like nutmeg and black pepper that they had set out for, and indeed, the new colonies were relatively poor when it came to aromatic products in comparison with Asia. Allspice is one of the few New World spices commonly sold in Europe and America. Others, like achiote or epazote, have not travelled.
Chili peppers, varieties of the Capiscum genus, were first domesticated 7000 or 8000 years ago, probably in central Mexico. The extent and history of their diffusion in pre-Conquest America is unclear, but they were an important flavoring and nutrient and a food associated with religious rituals among many people and nations (Kraft et al. 2014). A physician on Columbus’ second voyage, Diego Álvarez Chanca, observed the significance of chilies in the diet of the “Indians,” commenting also on the versatility of chili pepper and its many varieties (Olson and Bourne 1906, pp. 311–312).
The chili pepper has influenced only a few aspects of European cuisine. Smoked paprika is a specialty of the Estremadura region of Spain. Although most Italian food eschews piquant flavors, Calabria makes extensive use of dried red pepper, including even in grappa. Hungary developed a range of paprikas from mild to hot, and this variety of Capiscum, dried and ground into powder, has become the prime symbol of Hungarian cuisine. The use of paprika was extended with the development of mild varieties in the nineteenth and early twentieth (Anderson 2016, pp. 46–55). Apart from these exceptions, however, highly spiced cuisine remains alien to Europeans or has only recently been introduced through global trends such as Thai or Mexican food.
Chili peppers were spread by the Spanish and Portuguese expeditions and conquests. Peppers were adopted not only in places actually colonized by the Iberian powers, but through intermediaries, so that, for example, the presence of hot peppers in China results from diffusion via Portuguese Macao or perhaps India. No area was as quick to adjust its cuisine to the new ingredient as India, almost all of whose cooking styles now employ chilies. Within 50 years of Vasco da Gama’s arrival on the west coast of India in 1498, chilies were so familiar that many authorities came to believe they were indigenous (Collingham 2006, p. 11).
Chilies were made into various spice combinations, sauces, and relishes from the piri piri of Portuguese Africa to harissa in North Africa to sambals in Indonesia. The use of chili pepper is not uniform: in China, only in Hunan and Sichuan is it essential to cooking. In Thailand and Indochina, many dishes are infused with pepper, and sauces such as Sriracha give added hot flavor. In Indonesia, hot spices are more often an external relish rather than integral to food preparation.
All of this culinary transfer and activity left the arbiters of European cuisine almost unaffected by chilies save for the above-noted exceptions. During the eighteenth century, French cuisine took over as the international standard of sophisticated food consumed by the wealthy and the aspiring classes.
Spices were largely anathema to the French authorities, but other countries reached compromises with tradition. Margaretta Acworth’s manuscript cookbook, dating from the mid-eighteenth century, reflects the tastes of the English lesser aristocracy, the sort of people described in Jane Austen’s novels. Acworth offers a recipe for spiced beef in red wine, flavored with pepper, mace, and nutmeg, which maintains a connection to medieval antecedents (Acworth 1987, p. 66). The persistence of spices is visible in puddings, pies, and other desserts. In France, even desserts include spices as only a light flavoring, but the medieval complex of spices, sugar, and dried fruit is characteristic of beloved, if now slightly archaic, English sweets like plum pudding and fruitcake. Gingerbread remains popular in northern Europe while it has disappeared from France and the Mediterranean. Italy is an exception as panforte, a flat, fruitcake-like specialty of Siena, reflects a medieval heritage. Christmas treats in particular retain an earlier era’s idea of appropriate spices: Pfeffernüsse (sweet spiced biscuits) in Germany, Lussekatter (saffron-covered buns) in Sweden, and plum pudding in Britain are Christmastime requisites. In the United States, the Thanksgiving holiday menus offer some of the same comforting archaism with highly spiced pumpkin and mince pies. The current American fad for “pumpkin spice” led by such companies as Starbucks and Trader Joe’s indicates the persistence and reworking of essentially medieval tastes.
All this notwithstanding, the story of spices in Europe and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was one of decline, in contrast to most of the rest of the world. The hostility toward “Arab” spices expressed by the seventeenth-century French reformers became a broad mistrust of Asian, African, and Latin-American cuisines that were perceived as excessively spicy. In the first place, such use of spices was deemed unpalatable, but it was also believed that spices covered up the use of deteriorating primary ingredients. This partly explains the durability of the false but to this day widespread impression that medieval taste favored spices because of the poor quality of the meat or fish.
In the late-nineteenth-century United States, nutritionists, social workers, and home economists tried to “reform” the food habits of the working classes and to Americanize immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. They extolled a simple diet based on meat, dairy products, refined sugar, and modern processed foods and viewed spices as distractions from nutrition. Worse, spices, pickles, and other sharp flavors were thought to lead to indigestion and increase susceptibility to alcoholism (Biltekoff 2013, pp. 24–36; Elias 2017, pp. 32–42).
In addition to suffering from a poor international culinary reputation, Britain and America had a contradictory attitude toward spices. As seen in any number of cookbooks, Anglo-American food was bland, a tendency accentuated by the early embrace of industrially produced bread, canned and later frozen vegetables, and the like. Processing offers convenience, but at some sacrifice of natural flavor. The tasteless primary ingredient encouraged using spices to make things more interesting. Condiments such as Tabasco and A1 Sauce in the United States or Worcestershire sauce and HP Sauce in Britain routinely accompanied all manner of dishes. Barbecue sauce, a combination of sweet and hot tastes, is widely used in the United States, and barbecue flavor was one of the first variations on the standard potato chip, followed by jalapeño, Cajun, and other spice options. Tandoori crisps remain popular in Britain. Until recently, such peculiar tastes were unknown to Continental Europe.
Some of this latent Anglo-American predilection for spiciness comes from colonial or neocolonial empires. Curry was an English adaptation of Indian cuisine widely disseminated as far back as the eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century, the curries served at the Oriental and East India clubs in London were famous for their fiery flavor (Forrest 1968, p. 53; Prasch 2008, pp. 597–598). By a process that would be repeated with other imported cuisines, curry became progressively milder as every club and hotel dining room in Britain came to offer it. Until the 1960s, English curry was a creamy and only lightly spiced stew, but the pendulum swung back again toward a formula in which chili pepper was predominant and tough guys held “vindaloo” contests to see who could eat the hottest curry. In Martin Amis’ 1989 novel London Fields, a small-time criminal patronizes a restaurant called “The Indian Mutiny” where he challenges the waiters to make a mutton vindaloo that is too hot for him (with “napalm sauce”). This insular, xenophobic character considers eating curry as typically British, like playing darts in a pub (Buettner 2008, pp. 881–885). Spicy immigrant restaurant food might be regarded with affection by the nonimmigrant population, but the people who run the restaurants and members of their ethnic group can simultaneously be regarded with contempt, even fear, as is the case with Mexican restaurants and Mexican immigrants in the United States.
In recent decades, the taste for spices has returned to Europe and North America. This is only partly due to immigration and the proliferation of international restaurants. Thai and Tex-Mex food, which are all the rage in Germany and Scandinavia, have little relation to emigration to those countries and more with global popular culture. Restaurants opened by immigrants are, of course, popular in the United States, but the passion for spicy dishes such as Buffalo chicken wings, Nashville hot chicken, or blackened redfish results from the popularization of domestic local specialties.
The change toward a greater appreciation of spice in Western cuisines is furthered by the globalization of taste, a complementary phenomenon to the spread of Western fast foods. Globalization has both homogenizing effects (the same KFC formula in Beijing and Buenos Aires) and eclecticism – the availability of dozens of international cuisines. Fondness for safe versions of unfamiliar cuisine, once a peculiarity of the United States and Britain, has now spread everywhere. Spices remain both cherished ingredients in local products and universal flavorings for an indistinct global assortment of tacos, pizza, and sushi.
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