Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Good Meat, Good Spice

I have just started reading The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice by Michael Krondl.

And I am so happy that in the first pages he destroys the persistent myth that people in the Middle Ages ate heavily spiced food to disguise its rottenness. He offers several good rebuttals:

• Anyone who could afford exotic spices (e.g., pepper, cinnamon) was well-off enough to afford good meat. The rich could afford to eat fresh meat and spices. The poor could afford neither.

• Medieval cookbooks -- yes, they existed, for the upper classes -- directed cooks to add spices at the end of cooking for a greater olfactory whammy, which negates the idea of concealing or preserving "off" meat.

• Salt is the best cheap, traditional preservative for meat. So why would anyone use expensive imports?

All this is to say that spices weren't the truffles or caviar of their time but were more on the order of today's expensive extra-virgin olive oil. But like the bottle of Tuscan olive oil displayed on the granite counter of today's trophy kitches, spices were part and parcel of the lifestyle of the moneyed classes...

So I gave tonight's quick supper of sardines, garlic, and pasta an extra flourish of pepper. Got to support the spice trade, you know.

Medieval cooking is on my mind since Sunday night, when a colleague from the university absolutely knocked herself out preparing an Elizabethan feast for her "Midsummer Night's Dream" party.

There were lots of sweet-and-sour meat-and-fruit dishes, some wrapped in dough, as pasties but without potato, which would not be correct for the period.

And then some players from a community theatre troupe did scenes from the play outdoors under the pines and Douglas firs.

That's as close to a 16th-century feast as I will ever get.



Blogger Mark Churchill said...

I agree with all three of Krondi's arguments against the rotten-meat myth. That said, however, there is abundant evidence (circumstantial evidence, at least) for greater use of spices, not to disguise food spoilage but rather to prevent it, in lower latitudes/warmer climates. (For example, Mexican and southern Chinese cuisine is usually spicy; Swedish and English food not so much.)

Susan fusses at me when I leave jambalaya sitting on the stove overnight (which happens more often then you'd think) instead of refrigerating it. I happily enjoy the leftovers with no ill effect. I would not recommend or practice this with blander foods. Prior to the 20th century, food spoilage was a major cause of mortality. Public-health experts, I've heard somewhere (wish I could provide a citation), attribute more lives saved to the advent of refrigeration than to antibiotics.

Health benefits aside, there is something irresistable and even romantic about good spices. Susan can always tell I'm hungry when I linger in the spice aisle, buying things on impulse without having a specific meal in mind...

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

He does not address post-meal spoilage times!

Another point that he makes, however, is that European spice use (by those who could afford them) changed simply as food fashion changed. Culture, not climate, led to a switch from the peppery, gingery, vinegary flavors of the Middle Ages to an Early Modern (17th-century onwards) preference to sugar-and-cinnamon combinations.

The other story, of course, is the incredibly rapid spread of New World chili peppers into world cuisine. That spread took only about 50 years.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Copper Asetemhat Stewart said...

This sounds fascinating and I may add it to my list.

Spicing can add a moderating consistency to game meats (either because of the animal's food source or seasonal variation) and also allows more variety with the same staples... it allows one to inflect those staples a bit more and in complement to a changing array. Aside from spoilage,different slaughtering methods can also affect hormonal release and taste. (Older cooking methods also infuse flavors, like iron and woodsmoke).

12:42 PM  

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