The medieval recipe for ‘vinaigrette’ that I gave in yesterday’s post included grains of paradise as an ingredient. I don’t think I have talked about this intriguing spice previously, so today I want to give you a brief summary of its place in food history.
The botanical name for the leafy plant which is the source of the seeds which we call grains of paradise is Aframomum melegueta. The spicy seeds are also known by various other names including Guinea pepper, Melegueta pepper, alligator pepper, and Guinea grains. The plant is a member of the family Zingiberaceae, which also includes ginger, galangal, turmeric, and cardamom, and is native to the coast of West Africa.
Wealthy Europeans of the Middle Ages were incredibly hungry for spices for their medicinal as well as their culinary value, and were willing to pay well for them. This desire drove the great voyages of discovery of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which it was hoped would find a sea-route to India and beyond, thus breaking the stranglehold of the Arab empire on the spice routes across land. The spice was brought to Europe in significant quantity by the Portuguese, who came across it during their circumnavigation of the continent on their search for a sea-route to India in the fifteenth century. Pepper was especially prized, and extra-ordinarily valuable, so peppery-tasting alternatives were also a profitable cargo. The name ‘grains of paradise’ no doubt evoked the exoticism of a distant, warm, Eden-on-earth, and further enhanced their desirability and drove up their price: clever branding and marketing strategies are not a modern phenomenon.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, grains of paradise (assuming the name referred to the same spice as it does now) were recorded in English by the second half of the fourteenth century. The reference is an English translation of a French allegory called The Romaunt of the Rose, and it appears alongside several other desirable spices:
a1366 Romaunt Rose 1369 Clowe-gelofre [Clove gillyflower], and licoryce, Gingere, and greyn de Parys
As medicine, the spice was believed to be good for numerous conditions including those of ‘the stomake and the hed’ (Boorde, 1542.) In previous times, one of the common ways to help the medicine go down, was in alcohol. The following medicinal recipe sounds like it would also make a marvelously fragrant cocktail:
To make Dr. Stephen’s Water.
Take wild Camomile, Lavender, wild Marjoram, Mint, Pellitory of the Wall, Thyme, Red Roses, Rosemary and Sage, of each two Handfuls, Anniseeds, Fennel-Seeds, Cinnamon, Galangal, Ginger, Grains of Paradise and Nutmeg, of each six Drams. Bruise all these Ingredients and put them into two Gallons of Canary or Claret; let them infuse for twenty-four Hours, and then distil them off gently the first and second Runnings each by it self.
The Compleat City and Country Cook: Or, Accomplish'd House-wife
(London, 1732) by Charles Carter.