In A Nutshell
The popularity of spices skyrocketed in Europe around the time explorers were opening up the Middle and Far East. We’ve all heard the story that the newly discovered spices were so popular because they covered the taste of rotten meat, but that’s just not true. Spices were expensive, and using them meant that you were rich enough to be able to afford such luxuries—but you still weren’t going to waste them on bad meat. Fresh meat wasn’t hard to get, after all, and it rarely lasted long enough to go bad.
The Whole Bushel
This is another one of those stories that’s been passed around for so long that it seems completely believable, especially in the context of what we normally think of as the living conditions of Europe in the Middle Ages. There was no sanitation, certainly no refrigeration, and people scrounged for what they could find to eat . . . so it seems logical that the discovery and import of spices would become a huge success because suddenly, people could cover the taste of meat that was spoiling or that had already gone off.
That’s absolutely not the case, though, for a couple of reasons.
Medieval Europe was an agricultural society, and there were plenty of animals around. That meant there was always fresh meat being slaughtered, and those animals that were killed for human consumption just didn’t go very far. There were plenty of hungry people, and meat wasn’t going to be sitting around spoiling. Those that farmed would kill what they needed as they needed it. Butchers did the same; in fact, even in the Middle Ages, there were regulations in place that monitored the activities of butchers. Those that left entrails and carcasses to rot weren’t butchers for long.
Contrary to the idea that meat was sitting around spoiling, the process of preparing it often dictated that it be left to sit out for a while. It was often recommended that game birds be allowed to age for upward of a week before they were cooked.
Add in the climate of many places in Europe, especially the north. In areas where the temperature isn’t exactly warm and balmy, meat wasn’t going to be rotting in the heat even without modern refrigeration.
Spices became popular because they were new, exotic, and expensive. Adding spices to your meat was a status symbol, and it meant you had money to spare on these commodities. Before the Crusades, people could choose to use their money to buy a pound of saffron or a horse. A pound of nutmeg? That would cost you the same as seven oxen.
And once the Crusades and the explorers of the Age of Discovery helped to open up the East, spices were still expensive and even more diverse.
So why do we think that these expensive commodities were used to sweeten the taste of cheap, readily available meat?
Because of a man named Jack Cecil Drummond, author and adviser to the British Ministry of Food from 1939 to 1946.
In his book The Englishman’s Food, he says more than once that he has found a number of recipes that date to the Middle Ages that were used to make moldy or tainted meat edible. Those comments are opinions, however, and while much of the text is quoted and sourced, Drummond was neither a historian or a food expert—he was a scientist, applying his theories to what he saw. Even some of his words suggest he’s just applying his own hypothesis; recipes were “undoubtedly” for making meat taste better, he says.
He also misinterprets a word that gives credence to his theory. The word “greene” is used in medieval writings not to describe the color of meat, but to show that it’s unready in a reference to the practice of letting meat age before cooking. And he also cites numerous reasons why his tainted meat theory just doesn’t make sense—including documenting laws and punishments for butchers and grocers that served unsafe food.