There is nothing in the gastronomic world that is more lustful than dessert.
It is the exclamation point of an evening out on the town and the self-prescribed elixir for a broken heart. Dessert is decadent, emphatic, and gratifying. The moment when sweet meets tongue is undefinable, as the world around you is completely lost.
But why is this the case? What ties dessert to the euphoric ambrosia that comes with the creamy filling of a pastry, the lusciousness of flan, or the toothsomeness of a cake? The first answer that comes to mind is obvious: the copious amounts of sugar. But for now, let’s look beyond the sweet, because sugar has not always been synonymous with the dessert course. In fact, the Western construct of dessert was not centered around sugar at all. Starting in the Late Medieval period, which ran from the mid-thirteenth century through the early years of the Renaissance, the nucleus of the dessert course was spices. The infiltration of sweet spices in medieval cookery was a paramount moment for gastronomy, as their implementation set the stage for a new epoch of culinary exploration.
Throughout the Roman period, the Silk Road was a hub for spice trading, as Persia mediated commerce between the East and West. But the spices that the Romans consumed–black peppercorns, galangal, and laser root–were much more pungent and savory than those that later shaped the flavors of medieval desserts. When the Roman Empire collapsed, so too did the Western connection with Eastern spice trade. It was not until the Crusade period, beginning at the dawn of the 11th century, that there was a resurgence in European spice consumption, which began with renewed exposure to the Arab world.
The Crusades brought about the grand intersection of Europe and Asia, as hundreds of years of vicious battles and religious quarrels marked a moment of multicultural interaction. Upon their travels to the Arab world, European Christians were drawn to sweet spices. Cinnamon, star anise, and clove were aromatic stimulants, and the abrupt tastes of ginger and cardamom were obscurely robust. These scents and flavors were unknown, shrouded in mystery – a gateway to another world. And that’s not just paraphrasing. To Europeans, spices were, literally, otherworldly.
In the medieval period, Europeans saw spices as an exotic link to Christianity. Their fragrances had an unfamiliar sweetness, which Europeans subliminally associated with the divine aromas of frankincense and myrrh. It was believed that spice consumption benefited the human body in a variety of ways. The smelling and tasting of spices could supposedly stimulate the mind, arouse sensory observation, and heighten feelings of desire and hunger.
Europeans also believed spices to have strong medicinal value, which balanced the body and improved overall health. This belief was based on the Hippocratic Theory, which speculates that balancing the Four Humors of the body will prevent the growth and spread of harmful diseases. The dietetic science of the medieval period believed the human stomach was like a pot, which needed to ‘cook’ the food in order to properly digest it and thus maintain humoral balance. Through Hippocratic medicinal theory, spices gained their introduction to the European table. Based on Hippocratic knowledge, it was believed that spices “closed the stomach,” began to “heat the food”’ within, and activated the “cooking process.” Oftentimes, spices were paired with different types of fruits or sweet components in order to “close the mouth” and supplement the internal cooking process. Hippocratic theory began to dictate meals and feasts, as the order of dishes was centered around balancing the four humors.
Spices were folded, coated, and stirred into medieval cookery. Italians enjoyed cardamom pods and star anise candied with honey. Germans combined pears and apples with a hefty amount of freshly-ground cinnamon and topped them with egg-soaked bread, creating a dish known as Ein spise von birn. Europeans often concluded their meals with spiced drinks, like hippocras wine flavored with cloves and aromatics. Sang dragoun, or “dragon’s blood,” was a popular French dessert beverage which was colored with beets and prunes and flavored with copious amounts of ginger, giving a robust flavor profile to a drink which lived up to its name. Every meal at the medieval table was finished with the consumption of spices. While this coupling of fruit and spice was seen as a scientific phenomenon, their supplementary flavors continued to be paired far after the medieval period.
The flavors of Asia were now at the feasts of Europe, marking a monumental moment in both gastronomic and global history. In the following Renaissance period, the Pax Mongolica allowed Europeans to continue trading for spices. Known as the second coming of ‘The Roman Peace’, the Pax Mongolica was vital in establishing peaceful trade routes throughout Eurasia. The Pax Mongolica transformed commercial mobility, as Europeans were now able to move freely across continents to pursue spices–a task that had only previously been possible through violent crusading. Reliance on the Silk Road dwindled as a new epoch of global economics began.
During the Renaissance period, spices began to fade from the European palate. Instead of the overwhelming exuberance that came with heavily spiced foods, cooking became focused on le goût naturel–food that tasted as it should. Renaissance cooks believed that the natural and true flavors of food should not be masked behind the explosive flavors of spice. Parisian culture led this movement, highlighting La Varenne’s Le Cuisinier françois and Bonnefons’ Les Délices de la campagne as models of natural cooking. Renaissance cookery in France and Italy focused primarily on enhancing a food’s natural flavor, leaving aromatic and floral spices out of many post-medieval savory recipes. However, spices still remained a staple in the meal’s final dessert course. Why was this? Was it a continuation of Hippocratic practices? Science had debunked the Four Humor theory during the Renaissance period, yet spices remained. While there may be no concrete answer for this, one may be able to infer the apparent: spices simply made dessert taste better.
Today, sugar reigns supreme in desserts. It is the glaze on a donut, the crisp exterior of baklava, and the silkiness of a chocolate ganache. But as easy as spices may be to overlook — the cardamom in a donut’s dough, the nutmeg and clove-seasoned filling of baklava, and the cinnamon-coated churro — they are still used today. The influence that spices and medieval cooking practices have had on modern desserts is evident. While the medieval trend of eating entire spice pods has been left in the past (rightfully so), the practice of candying has grown to incorporate sweet spices with their sugar-based coating. Though most drinks that resemble the visual eccentricity of sang dragoun are saved for Halloween, the flavors have remained constant. Gingersnap cookies are the most obvious example, with their role in jams, jellies, and sauces playing an unsung, yet vital role in developing the correct flavor profile. Spices and fruit continue to be paired in present day cooking, covering a range of recipes used by rudimentary home cooks to the leather-bound booklets of Michelin-starred chefs. While spices may be the covert paramour of contemporary desserts, their insertion into medieval cookery is crucial in understanding their impact on the modern culinary landscape.
Image: Still life of porcelain vessels containing sweets, pewter plates bearing sweets and chestnuts, three pieces of glassware and a bread roll on a table draped with a mauve cloth, painted by Osias Beert between 1600-1619. Source: Wikipedia.
Nathan Tashjy is a M.A. candidate in Georgetown University’s Global, International, and Comparative History program. His research interests are focused on the development of regional Italian cookery in the United States during the 20th Century.