Monday, 15 February 2010

Spices in Italy

Spices have been used in Italian cookery since before Roman times. Historians recreating Roman recipes report that if anything, cooks in the ancient world used these exotic flavours to excess, drowning the flavour of other ingredients. In Rome itself, Indian pepper was so important that it became one of the five `essential luxuries` on which the foreign trade of the empire was based - in fact it was the most important because it transformed the food of the everyday life. At one time the price of just 12 ounces of pepper was equivalent to £250 in today’s money.

Over time tastes refined and the selection of spices available to Italian cooks expanded even if they did not become an affordable addition to the kitchen for many hundreds of years. In Medieval Europe Venice was a huge, seafaring and trading power and it was here, in the North that they held a monopoly on the spice trade. However other principalities in Italy bought their spices from Venetian merchants and use of spices was widespread. In particular, Florentine money, made in banking by the Medicis, meant that there was a lucrative spice trade all over Tuscany. The Venetian monopoly lasted until the early 16th century when Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama sailed to India and gave their Northern neighbours some competition.

Spices remained incredibly valuable during this period – nutmeg, for example, was worth more than gold. The idea that medieval and Renaissance cooks used spices to cover the taste of rotting meat is a myth – after all, to sprinkle on ruinously expensive and luxurious condiments simply to cover up the flavour of common cuts would be madness. Only the richest noblemen could afford spices for their kitchens, and these households could easily afford fresh produce for their cooks to work with.

Today Italians use spices throughout the year though there are huge regional variations. Coriander seeds are a common addition to pork dishes and use of pepper and nutmeg are widespread all over the country whereas ginger is rare except in the south. Whichever dish you choose to cook today, a few pennies will buy you a copious supply of spice except in the case of saffron, which has kept its allure and if not the hefty price tag of a bygone age, can still be considered a luxury. The precious golden threads are the world’s most expensive spice by weight. Saffron is still produced mostly in South East Asia so the spirit of the Venetian spice route lives on. It is used most famously in the classic Italian dish Risotto Milanese, which was created to celebrate a noble wedding in the 16th Century.

At Flavours we pride ourselves on our knowledge of local, Italian recipes in all our locations.