When Almonds Mooed

I’ve never heard almonds moo, but somewhere in the distant past, a savvy cook figured out a way to coax almonds to give up their “milk.” They’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

Almond Blossoms courtesy of aquarelabogota.org
Almond Blossoms courtesy of aquarelabogota.org

It wasn’t as hard as milking cows—you know, the hand/fingers coordination . . . thing—and it was a good substitute for cow’s milk at a time when refrigeration didn’t exist. Fresh milk had to be used immediately and no one would dream of buying milk from a vendor. It could have been contaminated, spoiled, or watered down.

Almond milk isn’t a new idea. It has a long history, and I doubt anyone could ever pinpoint the exact moment someone had a light bulb moment and realized that by soaking pulverized almonds in water, they could make almond milk. Almonds are native to North Africa, Western Asia, and the Mediterranean. The Egyptians enjoyed them and almonds were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The Romans thought them useful, calling them “Greek nuts” since the Greeks were cultivating them.

Tonsil Plums – Really?

The English word almond comes from the French word amande. In turn, amande is derived from an old Latin word for almond, amygdalus, which means “tonsil plum.” Hmm. That term doesn’t make almonds sound very appetizing, but it likely refers to the shape of the tonsil as it sits in the back of the mouth.

Blanced Almonds
Blanched Almonds

There are currently more than 100 varieties of almonds, many of which are grown in California, thanks to the Spanish missionaries who first brought the trees to the New World. California is currently the world’s largest supplier of almonds.

Back to medieval Europe.

As a rule, medieval adults didn’t drink cow’s milk. It was served to children, the elderly, and the sick. Today, we know that milk is rich in protein and can be consumed when meat wasn’t readily available. One thousand years ago, little was known about the nutritional breakdown of food into vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc. A typical meal for a farmer was bread and cheese with mead or ale thrown in for good measure. Cow’s milk was generally reserved for making cheese and butter, things that lasted far longer than the few days of fresh milk. For the wealthy, cream skimmed from fresh milk was used in making luscious desserts with fruits, nuts, and pungent spices.

The Catholic Church had imposed dietary rules, especially for Lent and other major holidays. There were also meatless days throughout the year. Using almond milk got around those restrictions, didn’t require refrigeration, and because almonds stored well, was available as needed.

When I started doing research for my medieval novel Forsaken, I scoured the internet

Fresh almond milk courtesy of Carrie on Living.
Fresh almond milk courtesy of Carrie on Living.

for information about what was eaten during that time as well as how food was prepared. I was surprised and delighted by how much information there is, including authentic recipes; both in the original text and transcribed into modern day English. For instance:

Source [Du fait de cuisine, Elizabeth Cook (trans.)]: 28. Take the quantity of almonds, have them well and cleanly blanched and washed and then have them very well brayed (crushed or pounded fine); and take very clean fair water and let him strain his almond milk into a bowl or a cornue (bowl or vessel with handle) which is fair and clean . . .*

You can buy almond milk at the grocery store, but making it yourself is very easy and tastes delicious. Here here are a few websites to help you get started:

Carrie on Living – easy tutorial with pictures.
Medieval Recipes – updated for the modern kitchen
A Boke of Gode Cookery – a website chock full of recipes and historical information.
Medieval Cookery – another website with recipes and historical information.
Vegan Reader – besides the basic recipe, there are other recipes for using almond milk.

* From Recreational Medievalism – a website by David Friedman

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When Pepper Was Gold

While I was writing Forsaken, I did a lot of research.  A lot.  How the medieval world obtained pepper, salt and other spices was part of that research.  It was fascinating how something we don’t give much thought to was as costly as gold.

Dried_Peppercorns

I’ll admit it.  We love pepper…a lot of people do.  We actually wore out a Peugeot pepper mill in just two years.  Everyone has access to pepper.  Everyone buys pepper, but we never stop to think how precious a commodity it was in times past.  We run to the store and buy a tin or a plastic shaker bottle—or peppercorns if you like grinding your own.  It’s inexpensive as spices go, but that hasn’t always been the case.  It was so valuable at one time, that the desire for pepper and other spices changed the course of world history.

Originally, pepper, like other spices, made its way west by way of trading.  The grower sold it to Trader A, who took it some distance where Trader B bought it and carried it further west.  Each time it was sold, the price went up.  By the time the pepper and spices reached the ends of Western Europe, it was so expensive that only Kings and wealthy nobles could afford it.  Spices became a status symbol—the Ferraris of their day.

Pharaoh Ramses II obviously loved pepper.  He must have, otherwise he wouldn’t have had peppercorns shoved up his nose after he died.  Not a very appetizing thought (as you stand at the stove with a pepper mill in your hand), but it did show that the Egyptians revered the little black peppercorn we generally take for granted.

The Greeks and Romans used pepper, too, and there seem to be many Roman recipes that contain pepper.  I read somewhere that when Hannibal rode his elephants through the Alps into Italy, he demanded more than one ton of pepper as a ransom.  I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s a lot of pepper!  And remember, the Romans used salt as a form of currency—it was a good thing if a soldier was “worth his weight in salt.”

By the time of the Middle Ages, a trade route had been established from India to Italy, which took about a year to make round trip and for more than a thousand years, Italy had a stranglehold on the pepper trade.  The Portuguese decided they’d had enough of the exorbitant prices and Italy’s monopoly.  They found a way to India by sailing around the tip of Africa.  Monopolies, however, are tricky things to maintain and even harder to keep.  Smugglers found ways around the trade routes and through the blockades.  By the 17th century, Portugal had lost its monopoly to the Dutch and English.

Back to the Middle Ages.  The Crusaders brought back many items from the Near East never before seen in their home country; fruits like apricots and lemons, perfumes and soaps, rice and pistachios.  Pepper was a luxury item, as were many spices.  They were costly.  What delicious fun to one-up high ranking guests by having an especially rare spice used in the dishes prepared for the meal!  Herbs and spices also improved the flavor of salted meats kept for winter use.

It’s amazing to think about how something as simple and seemingly insignificant as a peppercorn could influence history.  And yet, it did.