Spices during the Renaissance
Renaissance sailors first took to the seas to supply England and Europe with the many Asian and Mediterranean spices that were in demand. Peppercorns, nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon all came from lands to the east. Also from the East came precious gems and fine silk, a fabric especially sought after for women's clothing. These trading voyages were often paid for by investors and/or monarchs.
Buying black pepper, ginger, cloves and other spices back then was costly as these delights were considered to be valued as highly as gold and silver.
The people of the Renaissance found many uses for spices in everyday life. For example:
- Black Pepper was used to preserve and flavor spoiled meat.
- Cloves and cinnamon were used as substitutes for cleanliness, and were scattered across the floor to prevent foot odor from permeating the room.
Food has long been associated with health and well-being. People believed in the medicinal as well as supernatural properties of the spices they used. These tales also applied to the challenges that were faced when trying to secure these valuable and tasty commodities.
Here is one example: Before the Renaissance, it was reported that Arabs had cornered the cinnamon trade market. They restricted trade to maintain their monopoly. For sailors, the routes were made more hazardous by the legends that surrounded their efforts to secure and deliver these this spice. It was believed that poisonous snakes protected the great storehouses and that threatening birds built nests on mountain passes that made it almost impossible to safely return to the ships.
Renaissance era household cookbooks regularly recommended ginger, pepper, sugar, cinnamon, and other spices to treat stomachaches, headaches, or even to cure poisoning. Cookbooks of the royalty and nobility contained tarts, meats, soups, and other recipes that included great numbers of spices.
With the exception of mustard, fennel, and a few others, most spices had to be transported to Europe over the course of many months (if not years) via land trade routes like the Silk Road.
They came by sea on galleons that, under Elizabethan rule, were engineered with longer and lower designs that made them faster.
To learn more about food of the Renaissance, click here.