Saturday, March 19, 2005

Culinary Mythology: Spices in Medieval Times

Well, this was news to me. I always bought into this culiinary myth hook, line, and sinker.
As Gillian Riley (1993) has written: "The idea that spices were used in the Middle Ages to mask the flavour of tainted meat has been expressed with considerable conviction by many writers about food and cookery."

The same author demonstrates that:
  1. no convincing evidence has been produced to support this idea;
  2. in particular, the alleged recommendations in medieval texts to use spices for this purpose cannot be found;
  3. the supposition that the "tainted meat" theory is the only way of accounting for heavy consumption of spices in the Middle Ages is based simply on a misconception, since consumption of spices in that period was not unduly heavy -- and indeed could not have been, given their cost;
  4. detailed evidence about how cattle were slaughtered, how meat was sold, how cooks kept it and cooked it in particular places at particular times -- all this can now be studied in detail and produces no evidence in support of the myth.
Riley believes that the frequent use of the words "tainted meat" is significant in implying a derogatory and backward glance at cultures less fortunate than our own; and that the "disguising" role allocated to spices betrays a killjoy attitude which could not acknowledge the simple fact that they add to the pleasure of eating and were so perceived by people in the Middle Ages.

No comments: