If you have ever read through a medieval recipe you probably recognized a few of the ingredients. You probably also looked at a few of them and thought, “What the heck IS that thing?” or “There’s no way that I can get a hold of THAT.” Did you look it up? I did. Thanks to cooking and brewing recipes I have developed an interest in the herbs, spices, and various other plants used in the Medieval era and surrounding time periods. A lot of these plants we remain familiar with today but for their ornamental rather than nutritional or medicinal properties. Some plants that were used extensively back then we now know to be toxic. Many we can still purchase online or grow ourselves, or we might find them growing already in our own yards.
A few months ago I was asked to put together a class for an upcoming Brewer’s Collegium on Herbs and spices. That is a rather large category. I narrowed it down to herbs and spices found in brewing recipes and their modern availability. That is still a very large category. Out of the sources that I used I found 260+ unique herbs or spices (not counting use of multiple plant parts, ie roots, leaves, flowers, seeds, etc). Quite a few of these wouldn’t be called either an herb or a spice nowadays so I suppose a better term would be “medicinal or flavor additive” if one wanted to be really technical. Additives for shorthand.
The sources that I found primarily dealt with additives in mead while brewing, wine after brewing, wine that was then distilled, and other alcohols (such as fortified wines, aqua vitae, and brandy). While I did find some sources for beer additives it wasn’t a large selection and I intend on updating my handout when I can find more sources. I think the most successful part of the class itself was the “scratch and sniff” session. I brought small containers of many of the herbs/spices/additives that my sources had for ingredients and passed them around the room for people to look at, open, and smell. Next time that I teach this class I’m hoping to bring some fresh plants as well but the time of year wasn’t right for that this time.
If you are interested in learning more please follow this link to my current class handout. I intend to continue to update this, starting with an organizational update, when I have time and new sources. If you are interested in all of the background data used to compile the handout I have uploaded it all to a dropbox folder with my handout and bibliography. The handout is seven pages long or I’d simply post it here.
And what about the modern availability? I have an entire section in my handout on what can be found modernly. I was rather surprised to find so much honestly. And even more can be found if you want to dedicate garden space to it. Monterey Bay Spice Company, Mountain Rose Herbs, and Penn Herb Co. Ltd. are three large spice retailers where you can find a number of ingredients and I found a number of things on Etsy as well.
One last thing to keep in mind before you go off into the wilds of herb research:
Please ALWAYS research an unfamiliar plant before using and use with caution. Even familiar, everyday things can be toxic in large amounts, like almonds which contain trace amounts of cyanide. Some herbs are contraindicated with some medications and/or pregnancy such as Rue, St John’s wort, and Rosemary.
DO YOUR RESEARCH!