It has long been claimed that one of the chief use of spices in the Middle Ages or “Medieval Period” in Europe was to cover the taste of spoiled meat. This claim, without further examination, could make some sense. People were poor and without access to fresh meat, nor a means of preservation. The strong smell and flavor of many spices, if applied liberally, could cover the tainted taste of meat that was past its prime, which, if cooked thoroughly, could be eaten safely.
It is true that spices were important in the preservation of meats, and it is also true that certain spices might be used to “correct” meat that was thought to be hard on the digestion, but this had nothing to do with bad meat, only with its reputation in terms of potential for causing indigestion, deserved or not.
The idea that liberal use of spices would be used to make bad meat more palatable can be dismissed quite easily: By realizing that spices were very expensive luxury items, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace and cardamom, imported from far-off exotic lands like the Far East. Only the wealthy could afford them, and those that could afford spices could also afford fresh meat, and for those people, meat was butchered fresh daily, rather than sitting around and spoiling. When meats and fish were salted, they may have benefited from the liberal use of spices, which were often mixed in staggering varieties and quantities. This much is true, but, only to suit the enthusiasm for all the new spices, and to preserve food, not to mask spoiled food.
People were aware that spoiled meat could make you sick, although their idea of what caused spoiling had nothing to do with microbial contamination. As well, there were laws in place and merchants who sold spoiled meat could be harshly punished, often seeing time in the stocks. Also, the nobility often had their own forest lands, complete with its own game, which was the exclusive province of said noble. Only appointed huntsmen could roam and hunt these lands unchallenged, all for the benefit of the wealthy noble, who would be ensured fresh game, but also have access to fresh meat from cattle.
There were, of course, many spices and herbs native to Europe, such as mustard, sage, basil, fennel, mint, rosemary, cumin, and thyme. The poor could gather these in the wild and as well, garlic, chives, and onions were used as food seasonings by the poor. The wealthy, however, were crazy over the exotic flavors from afar, and even pepper, the most popular imported spice of the Middle Ages, was restricted to the aristocracy. It took until around 1350 for pepper to become available widely enough that common people had access to it, which, by the way, caused pepper to lose favor among the rich, being seen as a poor-man’s spice.
For a much more thorough treatment of this food myth, see Old Saw: They Used A Lot of Spices to Disguise Spoiled Meat, written by Alice Arndt and published by the site FoodHistoryNews in their section “The Debunk House.” I’d like to make special note of one part of the article:
Sir Jack Drummond in his book The Englishman and His Food, offers another alleged proof of the “tainted meat” hypothesis. Drummond quotes Hugh Platt’s suggestion, in The Jewell House of Art and Nature (1594), of wrapping “greene” venison in a cloth and burying it for a few hours to make it “sweet enough to be eaten.” The word “green” was often used in past times to describe fresh foods, including meat, in this case quite probably venison not yet hung for flavor and tenderness.
The point is that “green” does not mean spoiled. Green is a special term used to describe young meat that is not yet ready to eat. I have covered that in my article about dry-aging beef at home and you can read about it here.
As Paul B. Newman points out in Daily Life in the Middle Ages, the whole idea that exotic spices were used to disguise the taste of spoiled meat is quite silly. Tainted meat causes food poisoning. Europeans during the Middle Ages were not somehow immune to food poisoning. If anything, they were more likely to die from it than we are today. No amount of spices would render poisonous food safe to eat. The more likely explanation, that medieval people liked the taste that these spices brought to food, is just tossed aside, as if people in those days had no taste buds and were more concerned with food not tasting spoiled, than with it tasting better.
Also to consider is the belief that Middle Age Europeans had no means of preserving meat. This does not seem to be the case, and dehydration (drying), salting, and smoking were known and practiced. People often think that if people have no knowledge of bacteria and food spoilage, they cannot have any knowledge of food preservation. This is absolutely not true, and all the common methods of food preservation were discovered well before bacteria was discovered. Even the fact that burying meat in the cold ground, or just leaving it out in the frigid weather during the winter would preserve its edibility would have been well-known. It is as simple as observing that old dry meat, or old cold meat could often be eaten when old meat that was dried or kept cold would make you sick. Since cold could only be used during the winter, drying and other methods would have been the most common, especially since such meat would probably have been procured before the onset cold weather and any surplus would need to be preserved in order to last through the winter, to the extent possible.
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