The spices used in the medieval mulled wine

We make two different traditional medieval mulled wines for the marked events we go to, hypocrates & lutendranck. The recipes we use are from a danish medical and cook book from the late 1500’s but the recipes goes back to at least the 1300’s. I have looked into the history of the individual spices before, but have forgotten most of the research I did, so it is time to do re-search it again. So where did the medieval spices come from and how were they used? #AskMeAboutMyGainsOfParadiseAgenda

Pepper and it’s substitutions

Black pepper (Piper nigrum)

Pepper harvested for the European trade, from a manuscript Livre des merveilles de Marco Polo (The book of the marvels of Marco Polo)
Pepper harvested for the European trade, from a manuscript Livre des merveilles de Marco Polo (The book of the marvels of Marco Polo), c. 1410

Black pepper were an incredible valuable spice in the medieval and early renaissance. It as it was only grown in India (present-day Kerala in Southwestern India) and the merchant selling it out of India was very protective of the secret of it’s origin. Some say that they went to fare as to say that there were monsters guarding the pepper plants. Which explains the Scandinavian curse of wishing to send people to where the pepper grows. Nobody knew where that was, but it was fare away and dangerous. The price of pepper were at times higher than that of gold, gram for gram, which is why it was sometimes called “black gold”. European languages are littered with references to how expensive pepper was.

Contrary to popular belief pepper was never used to conceal the taste of partially rotten meat. No evidence supports this claim – see the price of pepper. It does however make salted meat taste quite a lot better.

Oxford: Bodleian Library (Bodl.614, fol. 38r). English, 1120-1140. Photograph by University of Oxford, Bodleian Library.
Serpents wound around pepper trees in “Marvels of the East.” C. 1130

Black pepper was known to the ancient Egyptians that among other things used in their mummification processes. In ancient times black pepper was traded via the trade network that dominated the Arabian Sea. By the middle ages parts of the rute was controlled by Islamic merchants. The Mediterranean part of the trade was dominated by Italien merchants and Northern Europe the Hanseatic League dominated the trade – read about why a bachelor is called a “pebersvend” in danish on wiki – it’s fascinating!

Pepper was traded along the silk road until the Portuguese opened up the sea route to India in the late 1400’s. Even after Africa was circumnavigated pepper remained an expensive luxury spice. The price of pepper was an important driver in the Potrugeses desire to find an alternative route to India, so they could break the monopoly of Italian merchants.

Long pepper (Piper longum)

Dried long pepper
Dried long pepper

Long pepper taste similar black pepper but packs more heat. Long pepper does not travel as well as black pepper as it tend to get moldy quite easily.

Long pepper was known to the ancient Greek and Romans at least as far back as the fourth century BCE. It was traded over the the Arabian Sea via an extensive trade network. When ancient recipes call for pepper, it is more likely long pepper than black pepper. Long pepper was an important spice in Europe until the discovery of chili peppers in Americas after 1492. Black pepper started to compete with long pepper in the 1100’s but didn’t become the dominant pepper until the 1300’s. Older recipes for Powder Fort uses long pepper rather than black pepper. Long pepper is still used in Indian, North African and South Asian cooking today.

Cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba) or tailed pepper

Dried cubeb berries
Dried cubeb berries

Cubeb has pepper notes along with a strong taste of pine needles. It is a very aromatic spice and quite different from black and long pepper. To me the taste resembles that of juniper quite a bit. Like many other spices cubeb has been used medicinally as well as a spice. In Europe and China it was used to repulsive demons and was used in exorcism as late as in the late 1600’s.  In the middle ages cubeb was used as seasoning for meat and in sauces such as sauce sarcenes. Candied cubeb could also be eaten as whole as a confectionery. Cubeb is still used in gin production and in Arab, Moroccan and Indonesian cuisine today.

Like the other peppers in the medieval period, cubeb pepper came to Europe from Java via India through the trade with the Arabs. The trade in cubeb pepper goes at least as far back as Theophrastus in 300’s and likely father. The Javanese growers sterilizing the seeds before trading it to keep their monopoly. By the 1200’s cubeb was imported from the Grain Coast in Africa as pepper.

Grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) or melegueta pepper

Dried grains of paradis and the pod of the plant
Dried grains of paradis

Grains of paradis is part of the ginger family and closely related to cardamon. The complex taste has hints of black pepper (without the heat), cardamom, hazelnut and citrus. The plant is native to the Grain Coast (named for the spice) in West Africa, modern day Liberia.

In the medieval period, grains of paradis was exported from West Africa via camel caravan through the Sahara desert and by ship into Italy. In 1469, King Afonso V of Portugal granted the monopoly of trade in the Gulf of Guinea to Lisbon merchant Fernão Gomes, including the exclusivity in trade of grains of paradise. Unlike many of the other pepper alternatives, grains of paradis remained popular in Europe due to it’s low price, even after the Portuguese opened the direct maritime route to the Spice Islands around 1500.

The ancient Roman knew it as African pepper. It did however fell out of use until the 1300’s where it was reintroduced under the much catcher name grains of paradise. Stella PR move by the way. The first mention of grains of paradis in Denmark is in 1328. Among many other uses it was used in mulled win to improve the taste of wine that smells “stale”. Later, the craze for the spice waned, and its uses were reduced to a flavoring for sausages and beer.

Other important spices

In Northern Europe pretty much all of the common spices of the medieval period are associated quite strongly with Christmas – especially in combination. They are the spices of gingerbread cookies, gløgg (or glühwein) and the Christmas roast. I was an adult until I tasted fresh ginger and I didn’t taste galanga until we started doing medieval reenactment. However all of the spices were part of the spices commonly used in the medieval period – especially among the wealthy elites.

Many of the spices were used in ancient Roman and Greek recipes but fell out of use in the “dark ages” only to show up again the medieval period. Many of the uses of spices in medieval European cooking can be traced to the Moors (the muslims in current day Spain).

All of the spices were used both in sweet and savoury dishes. Today in Northern Europe many of the spices are only used in sweet dishes. All of the spices and most herbs were thought to have medicinal properties – more on that in another blog post – it all has to do with the balancing the four humours. Most spices were hot and dry and so appropriate in sauces to counteract the moist and wet properties supposedly possessed by most meat and fish. As the middle class began to seek upward mobility, they too wanted to purchase the luxury goods that were once only available to noble classes.

Nutmeg and mace (Myristica fragrans)

Nutmeg, coconut & melagueta pepper (grains of paradis).
From Egerton 747, c. 1300 Italy

Nutmeg is the seed of the plant, while mace, from the seed covering of the same plant. Nutmeg is native to Moluccas (or the Spice Islands) of Indonesia. Until the mid 1800’s Moluccas provided all of the nutmeg of the world. The use of mace and nutmeg in Europe goes back to ancient times. Both were highly priced as spices in medieval Europe. In Elizabethan times, because nutmeg was believed to ward off the plague, demand increased and its price skyrocketed. In medieval times it was used as spice, in beer and to sent clothing chests. I seriousely want to taste medieval ale flavoured with nutmeg!

It was imported from Indonesia via Arab merchants to and sold to the Venetians for high prices during the medieval period. Like many other spices the Arab merchant guarded the secrets of the origin closely. They managed to keep their monopoly on the trade until the 1511, when Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca on behalf of Portugal.

In high does raw ground nutmeg has psychoactive effects which seems to have been well known in the middle ages. Nutmeg was thought to purifies the senses and lessen evil humours according nun Hildegard of Bingen 1153.

Cardamom (E. cardamomum)

Chervil and cardamom plants, from medieval manuscript 1491
Chervil and cardamom plants, 1491

Cardamom comes from a number of plants in the ginger family native to India and Indonesia. The use of cardamom dates at least 4000 years. The ancient Egyptians used it for medical purposes and as part of rituals and chewed the pods to keep their breath sweet. The ancient Greek and Roman used it for it’s aroma in perfumes and oils. In medieval times cardamom was imported by, you guessed it, Venice along with the other Indian spices from the Levant. In the late 1500’s the Portuguese became involved in the cardamom trade along with everything else.

Contrary to popular believe the vikings did not bring cardamom home from Byzantine Empire – there is no evidence supporting that idea – it is of course possible, but unfounded. Cardamom first shows up in the Scandinavian sources in Libellus De Arte Coquinaria from 1300 and it include Moorish (Spanish muslims) recipes. In Scandinavian many of the medieval tastes survives in traditional cooking unlike in the rest of Europe that moves on from the heavy use of spices in the renaissance period.

Green cardamom is still one of the most expensive spices by weight.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)

Cinnamon vendor, 1400's
Cinnamon vendor 1400’s: Valued for satisfying palettes but also for healing disease.

As most of us know cinnamon is the bark of the cinnamon tree which is native to Sri Lanka. I really recommend getting the whole bark for use in medieval recipes – especially in things like spiced wine. It is much more pleasant and aromatic to work with. Buy good quality as well if you are able.

Both the ancient Chinese and Egyptians used cinnamon as early as 2000 BC. In European antiquity it was a common gift to kings and gods. As with other spices the Europeans didn’t know where the spice originated because the trader guarded the origin as a trade secret to protect their monopoly as suppliers. According to Herodotus, both cinnamon and cassia grew in Arabia, together with incense, myrrh, and labdanum, and were guarded by winged serpents. In ancient Rome Cinnamon was among other things used as highly priced incense.

In the medieval period cinnamon was among the more common of the imported spices. I am guessing because it can be harvested and dried more easily than many of the other spices – it was properly a bit cheaper. Especially when they stopped using it in funeral fires. Medieval physicians used cinnamon in medicines to treat coughing, hoarseness, and sore throats. Cinnamon was particularly desirable as it could be used as a preservative for meats during the winter (? are we sure about this?). During the Bubonic Plague, sponges were soaked in cinnamon and cloves and placed in sick rooms, and it has also been burned as an incense.

Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum)

Stack of cloves: Flower buds of clove tree

Cloves are the aromatic flower buds of tree syzygium aromaticum, native to Maluku Islands (former spice islands) in Indonesia. Cloves have been known in ancient Rome since the first century CE and was traded as part of the Arabian Sea trade network with India to Europe. Clove was known as one of the “lesser spices.” Though not as strong as ginger but useful for its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, clove was especially useful in dental care. It was also a typical spice in pomanders, the medieval precursor to potpourri, in which fragrant ingredients were placed in a perforated box to ward off illness. The decorative use of clove-studded oranges, a seasonal pomander, is still associated with the winter months.

Saffron (Crocus sativus)

SafranSaffron is made from the stamens of the Saffron crocus. Each flower has only a few stamen and they must be picked by hand, which makes it one of the most expensive spices in the world and it has always been. It has it origin either in Iran, Greece or Mesopotamia. Today most safran is produced in Iran. The taste of Saffron is delicate but distinct though safran is also used as a yellow to red dye for dishes and fabrics. Because saffron is native to the Levant it’s use dates back to the stone age in Europe and the Levant. It has been used in almost any way you can imagine from senting of beds, to dying of fabrics over spicing of food. In ancient Rome saffron was produced in Gaul (France) only to disappear after the fall of Rome and be reintroduced by the Moors in France, Italy and Spain. In the medieval period in south of England also produced saffron. Like with other spices the demand rose with the black death were it was used medicinally.

Saffron is not only used a spice and dye, a luxury self-tanner, but also as a serotonin stimulant. Musicologist Volker Schier has found a  cache of letters he discovered, which reveal that medieval nuns were hooked on the saffron and was singing under the influence. Listen to the podcast – it’s so cool!

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Miniature of a zinziber, or ginger plant (left) with a zedoary, or turmeric plant, from a medieval herbal, Egerton MS 747, f. 105v
Ginger plant (left) and a turmeric plant (right), c. 1300

Native to the Island Southeast Asia and has been cultivated all over the region since the stoneage. Ginger was among the first of the spices to be exported into Europe and was used i Ancient times, but mostly it fell out of use after the fall of the Roman empire. It was reintroduced to Europe in the 1200’s. Ginger came to be highly prized during the Middle Ages.

The potent ginger plant and rhizomes were valued for their stomach-warming and digestive properties as much as for the flavors they imparted. It was also used as a kitchen spice both for it’s taste and for it hot and dry humor properties. Ginger was a part of the first gingerbreads, that was made from stale bread crumbs and a spice mix including ginger, that would be pressed in molds into pretty shapes – including of course religious ones.

Ginger would be used dried, ground or candied imported from the East.

Galangal (Alpinia officinarum)


Galangal is a cuisine of ginger, though the taste is less sharp and hot and more aromatic with notes of pine needles and pepper. There are four types of galangal: lengkuas, greater galanal and blue ginger. Galangal is native to South East Asia with it’s roots on Java like many of the other spices that made it to Europe. The galangal rhizomes were widely used in ancient and medieval Europe, where they were reputed to smell of roses and taste of sweet spice. Since then has it largely fallen out of use in Western Europe, but is still used in Russian and Eastern European cooking. Historically, the rhizomes were reputed to have stimulant and digestive effects.

The must have been imported dried or ground into Europe along the spice routes like the other spices, but I can’t find the infomation on the history of the trade in galangal, but it does show up in multiple of our medieval recipes.

Anise (Pimpinella anisum)

Whole anise seedsAnise (not the same as star anise, though the taste is similar) was widely used in the middle ages as part of the spice mixes sound in fin dinning. Anise was first cultivated in Egypt, where it has been clutivated in about 4000 years and the Middle East, and was brought to Europe for its medicinal value, reducing flatulence. According to Pliny the Elder, anise was used as a cure for sleeplessness, chewed with alexanders and a little honey in the morning to freshen the breath, and, when mixed with wine, as a remedy for asp bites

Star anise (Illicium verum), was not introduced into Europe until 1578 by English navigator Sir Thomas Cavendish. He brought star anise to Europe via the Philippines, causing many Europeans believe that the Philippines was where it originated. The spice’s use in Europe was limited mainly to desserts and liqueurs. Star anise has been in use in Russia since the 17th century and in Germany since the 18th.


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