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Spices


In Tuscan medieval and Renaissance cooking spices had a great importance, because they gave to the food - above all to game, but not only – that typical marked antique taste, of great tradition and very flavoursome.

A LITTLE HISTORY

Spices were known, used and loved since the beginning and not only for giving taste to food, but also to make medicines efficient and pleasant, perfumed cosmetics, and also to honour gods. In ancient times spices had above all, functions propitiatory, let alone a therapeutic and a cosmetic position. In ancient Greece - according to Erodoto of Alicarnasso, considered the first great ancient Greek historian - the commerce in spices was prosperous, trusted to caravans that slowly passed through Arabia coming from India towards Egypt and along the Libian-Syrian coast. Also in Egypt there was a great use for spices, above all cinnamon and senna, aromatic plants, of sweet-smelling herbs (wild marjoram, mint, juniper) and of the resinous gum (laudanum, incense, myrrh). These products were, however, reserved for the Pharoah, princes, and priests, and had a function, above all, of propitiatory (other than that of therapeutic and cosmetic); there is no evidence to their being used in cooking. It was in Greece in the IV century B.C. that the therapeatic use of spices was joined with that of culinary. On one side there was Hypocrates of Kos (460-370 B.C.) the author of the Oath that still today constitutes the fundamental ethics of doctors, indicates these spices as a base ingredient in his medicines, on the other side there is the botanist Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.) in his text on herbs declared that spices had a function of heating the body and so favoured the digestion helping in the process of cooking the food. From the Greeks the use of spices passed to the Romans and continued throughout the Middle Ages, when some spices were used also to tint cloth, paint glass and skins and to prepare inks. But when did they fully enter into cooking to enrich the food? The first text that gives evidence of spices used to give flavours to food is that of Apicio (1st century A.D.). However for this question there is no precise answer, but certainly the passage was gradual and sometimes casual, if one believes in the fable that indicates the origins of "risotto allo zafferano" as a small incident. It is said that in 1574 an errand boy of the Flemish master Valerio di Profondavalle, who went Milan to paint the windows of the Duomo, by error let fall, into a pot where there was being cooked rice, a packet of saffron which he was using to yellow a window. In reality, already towards 1380, there appeared a French recipe book of the title "Viandier", a "riso strapazzato" (riz engoullé). The rice is cooked in hot milk, and finished in a fat broth and saffron. Also the famous Messimburgo (in the service of Cardinal Hippolyta d'Este) in his book "Banchetti" published in 1549 gives a recipe for rice or pearl barley cooked with a yolk of an egg and cheese and finished with pepper, sugar, saffron and, for those who wanted, cinnamon. Immaginative stories and recipes testify however that from the beginning of the XIII century the use of spices did not only enter into the food, but were also theorized about, recommended and widely used. Our term "spice" derives from the latin "species" that indicates special merchandise of value that differentiates from ordinary merchandise; the term, slowly, became known as our "spices", which is the vegetable substance of oriental origin used, above all, in cooking. Noble elements, reserved for the rich and powerful, sometimes with a certain mystery, of which was attributed magical properties. Cloves, for example, systemized in special templates told, insisted the doctors, of which plague was contaminating and was being spread throughout the air. Certainly the spice most widely used already in the Roman world was that of pepper, so much so that in 92 A.D. it was necessary to construct special warehouses called "horrea pipearia" (graneries of pepper). We can gauge its value by Alarico, king of the Visigoths, who in 410 sacked Rome and took not only the gold and silver but also 5,000 pounds of pepper. In the Middle Ages the first great shunting station for spices was Pavia, capital of the kingdom of Lombardy; in this period it was widely used as a payment of compensation of office to consuls and officials using the valuable spices such as that of pepper, saffron and cinnamon, the rest was offered to princes and popes, to feudal lords and ambassadors, to monasteries and also sometimes to victorious soldiers as a war booty. But it was in the Crusades that spices assumed a first grade importance in international traffic; it was from the 1200's that there appeared on the scene in Italy a new cooking that proposed new spices not only for thier therapeatic virtue, but also for the evolution of taste, and finally (even if this motivation is not accepted by all) to cover strong flavours that meat gave off with the passing of days. The principle spices used beginning from the XII century was certainly that of cloves, pepper of Guinea, nutmeg, cardamom, galanga and mace. But this use slowly went away disappearing altogether at the end of the XVI century, not only when the traffic, but also the centres of production were intermittently in the hands of Europeans; the first to renounce it seems to have been the Italians.

THE RETURN OF SPICES IN COOKING

Today there is a renewal owing to a standardization in the international camp and to the possibility of a supply everywhere, in every season, of every food: a definite renewal spread a little throughout all social
classes and in many countries of the use of spices and of aromatic herbs, also for the role that they have in the area of health. And with this there is a return to old/new flavours, first above all is the dolceforte that sees a union between peppery spices and sweetness and not only through the spices but also through the joining of meat and fruit such as pineapples, apples and pears. In all cooking pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg are present and used side by side with red peppers and aromatic herbs such as thyme, marjoram, pepolino, juniper berries, other than the widely used rosemary, sage and basil.
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