The Medieval Travelling Spice Kit – 13th & 14th Centuries

One of my foodie friends was talking about the “Traveling Spice Kit” that they had put together. It was a small collection of “must have” spices in little bottles that he kept in a little box that he would then be able to access whenever needed. In polite company, I can’t imagine the scenerio where a spice emergency might occur so that this could be deployed, but something shook loose in my memory about medieval spice kits.

This was what I remembered – a 16th century German woodcut of a cook in his kitchen. You can see the spice box on the left of the woodcut, on the table. It’s simple, just a series of boxes inside of a larger box where spices could be stored safely.

But, how were the spices stored? Was each compartment dedicated to a specific spice? Were the spices held whole or ground? If there was more than one spice per compartment, what were they stored in? Was it important to group like spices together? Was there a greater purpose to holding spices in boxes like the one in the woodcut – was that how the cook kept track of what was available and what was needed? Was it an anti-theft measure?

I started with checking the primary sources I felt would be most likely to have this information, Chiquart’s “Le Menagier de Paris” (Hinson Translation):

And the other kitchen equerry or his helper will go with the the cook to the butcher, the poulterer, the grocer, etc., to shop, choose, arrange and pay for portage; and he will have a cupboard locked with a key for the spices, etc., and will distribute all by reason and measure. And afterwards, they or their helpers will retrieve and keep the surplus in packets, closed up in the cupboard to avoid spoiling or excessive use by the menials.

So, the recommendation was that spices be kept in “packets” which could be made of either cloth or leather – this has been attempted by re-enactors to see which works best and the consensus is that whole spices keep best in either cloth or leather while ground spices keep best in clay or glass jars.

There is a differentiation between “spices” and “ground spices” in the recipes – ground spices being used primarily to finish or garnish a dish. Because of this there must have been a difference that mattered to the writer. This indicates that spices were therefore kept in both states.

Le Menagier is an instruction book as much as a cookbook, which is why it’s a meaningful choice while discovering how spices may have been kept. The problem is that it’s difficult to find other primary resource mention of how spices may have been kept.

This was confirmed by some correspondance that was shared by one of the members of a list that I subscribe to from Charles Perry (translator of “An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century”):

(from Charles Perry)
I think the leather bags everybody mentions were used in transporting spices overland (woven panniers were also known) but not used for kitchen storage. There might be some information on this subject in “Social Life in Baghdad Under the Abbasids” (not sure of
the exact title) by M.M. Ahsan which was published in the 1980s by the Librairie du Liban; long out of print but it’s probably in the Cal library system somewhere. (Ahsan is learned, but I’d take what he says about the nature of dishes with a grain of salt, he’s obviously one of those scholars who never go into the kitchen.)

The medieval cookbooks don’t say anything about where spices are kept. The most likely place would have been small pottery vessels, though some things might have been kept in glass jars (the word “jar” actually comes from Arabic); I imagine saffron might be
one, because you wouldn’t have huge quantities of it in the first place. There are references to putting a “lid” or “cover” (ghata) on pots and jugs (not in a spice context) but I don’t know how tight-fitting it would have been. Often there are instructions to cover the mouth of a vessel with cloth, esparto or leather. You could
also store things in a wooden box (huqqa).

In Europe, where spices were rare and precious, a great house would lay in a store of spices which would be watched over and ground to order by a servant known as a spicer. In the Middle East, where spices were cheaper and more abundant, people shopped for spices more frequently. To me, this implies that that they did not keep large quantities of spices at home. They might have kept spices open in small bowls. The spice used most abundantly was coriander, so I would not be surprised if there were jars for coriander (and pepper), but I don’t think people kept any spices very long at home.

In Middle Eastern spice shops, spices are usually kept in wooden bins until they’re brought out for display. I expect that was the medieval practice also. Bins, pots, boxes, but probably not leather bags, which would probably have been emptied in the shop and gone right back on the road.”

So, it sounds like the ways that spices were transported and the way that they were stored would have been different. The idea presented by Charles Perry that in cities spices were purchased more frequently has the ring of truth to it but would require a bit more digging on my part to see just how true it actually is.

Next week…the 15th and 16th centuries.

Further Reading:
“The Consumption of Spices and Their Costs in Late-Medieval and Early-Modern Europe: Luxuries or Necessities?”,

“Stefan’s Florilegium: Plants, Herbs, Spices”