What you need to remember is that before spices appeared in Europe, the medieval diet was decidedly monotonous. People ate a limited range of local produce and then, through the long winter months, the supplies they had managed to dry or preserve in brine. Small wonder, then, that when the Crusaders tasted the spices of the Orient on their travels to the Holy Land, they sought to bring them back to Europe. Spices were used in the kitchens of the rich to bring welcome variety and to disguise the taste of food that was no longer quite fresh, spices were so expensive that they were kept under lock and key.
A lady called Margaret Paston went to great lengths to secure the best price she could before purchasing her household requirements. On 5 November 1471 she sent a letter from Norfolk to her son John in London which included these instructions:
.. . and send me word what price a pound of pepper, cloves, mace, ginger, and cinnamon, almonds, rice, ganingale, saffron, raisins of Corons, greens. O f each of these send me the price, and if that it be better cheap at London than it is here, I shall send you the money to buy with such stuff as I well have.
The word spice first appeared in Middle English around 1225. Its origins lie in Latin species. This was a derivative of the verb specere, ‘to look, and denoted first ‘appearance* and later ‘kind’, ‘sort’ (hence species which was borrowed into English in the sixteenth century). Late Latin used species to mean ‘goods’ or ‘wares’ of a particular kind. But when the word was taken into Old French as espice and from there into English as spice, it was used exclusively to denote the aromatic spices of the East.
According to Maistre Chiquart, head chef to the Duke of Savoy in the early fifteenth century, cinnamon, ginger and pepper were classified as major spices, while nutmeg, cloves and mace were minor ones.