Cross-cultural trade and coloring in medieval European cooking

Cross-cultural trade in the medieval world impacted the culture including cuisine of Europe and was both a response to changing tastes as well as a stimuli for further creativity and innovation in the medieval kitchen. Changing tastes reflected a growing sophistication in the culinary arts of medieval Europe which was heavily influenced by the cuisines of the Middle East and Arab world as well as indigenous beliefs about color.

Professor Chris Woolgar in his recent article, Medieval food and colour, says, “Contemporary science teaches that objects that shine reflect light, but medieval people saw these objects as the source of light, and the divine qualities of light made them virtuous in their own right.” As such, different colored foods were believed to have different effects upon the human body and color was also increasingly used by the elite for decoration including in in entremets, ornamental dishes served between the main courses for the purpose of theatrics and exhibition.

The Arab-Islamic world was dominating much of the commerce in spices and aromatics over land and by sea especially as Muslims controlled much of the territory between Xian and Baghdad and onward to Al-Andalus (Spain) and several key ports like Aden, Muscat, Alexandria and Zanzibar, and important footholds in Calicut, Cochin, Ceylon, Melaka, Canton and later Zaitun.

It was via these routes that important new and colorful spices such as cinnamon, saffron and ginger reached Europe. Cinnamon for example was native to South Asia and was being used in Greece by the seventh century BCE. Herodotus even believed that cinnamon came from Arabia presumably because Arabs and other Semites were the suppliers to Europe. By the middle ages it seems much of the cinnamon was being sourced from Indonesia and entering Europe through Egypt where the Venetians eventually gained a monopoly on the European trade after establishing a trading post in Alexandria. Along with its beautiful aroma and taste, it could also be used to help color food brown. Cinnamon ended up being an important ingredient in sweets and pastries and also in some savory foods as well.

Saffron which is used for both its aroma and color as well as a medicinal product and aphrodisiac. It seems to have originated in Persia and was mentioned in the Song of Solomon book of the Hebrew Bible. The word has Semitic and Persian roots coming from the Arabic za’faraan which comes from the Persian zarparan. It was even being cultivated in Europe in Greece and elsewhere but production disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire. It would be reintroduced by the Arabs in Al-Andalus where it would also spread to France. It of course is used to color foods yellow or orange and became an important ingredient in many European foods including Spanish paella Valenciana, French bouillabaisse stew, Italian risotto alla Milanese and the Swedish saffron bun.

Cross-cultural trade in the medieval world fulfilled and important role in fulfilling the demand for food coloring in Europe which was simultaneously being heavily influenced by the cuisines of the Middle East and Arab world that existed on its proximity or even in Europe when considering Al-Andalus and early medieval period settlements in Sicily and southern Italy. Color became a key component in European cuisine, at least for the wealthy and elite, and denoted both physical and moral characteristics as well as spectacle during multiple course meals. Its impact remains today and would not have developed if not for these early global commercial links.

The photo is courtesy of Flickr user Larry Hoffman and subject to use under the conditions of the Creative Commons.

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