The Paradox of Hot Food

I’ve wondered why food abroad (which almost always means somewhere warmer) often is more spicy than the typical, Norwegian cuisine. A part of the explanation is likely that few spices grow north. In David Landes The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, after extensive discussions of European trade and shipping routes across the world from the 1400’s and onwards, with spice as an important commodity, I came across the following anecdote.

The Spice of Life

People of our day may wonder why pepper and other condiments were worth so much to Europeans of long ago. The reason lay in the problem of food preservation in a world of marginal subsistence. Food supply in the form of cereals barely sufficed, and it was not possible to devote large quantities of grain to animals during long winters, excepting of course breeding stock, draft animals, and horses. Hence the traditional autumnal slaughter. To keep this meat around the calendar, through hot and cold, in a world without artificial refrigeration, it was smoked, corned, spiced, and otherwise preserved; when cooked, the meat was heavily seasoned, the better to hide the taste and odor of spoilage. Hence the paradox that the cuisine of warmer countries is typically “hotter” than that of colder lands–there is more to hide.

Condiments brought a further dividend. The people of that day could not know this, but the stronger spices worked to kill or weaken the bacteria and viruses that promoted and fed on decay. […] Spices, then, were not merely a luxury in medieval Europe but also a necessity, as their market value testified.

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