Herbs and Spices

Medieval cuisine was a blend of the freshest, most local ingredients, combined with spices traded across the Steppes, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

The Chief Cook should have a cupboard in the kitchen where they may store away aromatic spices and bread flour sifted though a sieve – and used also for feeding small fish – may be hidden away there.’

Alexander Neckham (d. 1218), On the Names of Utensils, from Urban T. Holmes, Daily Living in the Twelfth Century (1952), p. 93.

Medieval cooking uses a lot of herbs, many of which are not in general use nowadays. Southernwood, Alecost/Costmary, Savory and Dittany may not be regular ingredients in every kitchen but they were commonly used in the medieval period.

Alongside these are the more familiar: Rosemary, Bay, and Sage, etc. And there are some which are mentioned that shouldn’t really be used such as Pennyroyal which is toxic to humans. Herbs proliferate in medieval cuisine, exemplified by the famous green sauce.

Spices were equally prized, and at the elite level a very wide could be accessed: from ginger to galangal, cumin, cinnamon, long pepper, grains of paradise, cloves, zedoary. Basically everything you might imagine except from the Americas.

Spices, if expensive, were not uncommon. The venerable Bede (672/3-735) kept a small pouch of pepper on his person, and rent for land could be settled in quantities of particular spices. They came to Europe via long-range trade routes from Indonesia, India, and the Arabian peninsula, across the Silk Road, and from West Africa.

Modern Routes to Herbs and Spices

You can get most of the herbs and spices you need for medieval recipes in supermarkets and by online order. There are some herbs, however, which you may have to consider growing to have a ready supply. Southernwood is a good example.

There are lots of reputable commercial herb growers: if you are based in the UK a company like Hooksgreen Herbs, at Stone, Staffordshire, will be able to supply all of the herbs you should use in medieval cooking.

Again, for spices, there are innumerable options, and if you are based in the UK a company like Steenbergs, will be able to supply most of the aromatics required. There are some, however, for example ambergris, that are difficult if not impossible to come by.

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