Grains of Paradise again –
in herring pies from Norwich
As happens so often, once you notice a topic, it seems to crop up everywhere. This was the case for me with Grains of Paradise. I first came across this spice as the special ingredient in the original Alban Buns. Today I happened to read a post about herring pies made by the City of Norwich for the king and there it was again.
The entry in The Records of the City of Norwich includes some indication of the quantities needed for 24 pies:
Six score herrings in 24 pies, that is to say 5 herrings in each pie
Powder for the Lord King’s pies – Half a pound of ginger, ½ lb. of pepper, a quarter of cinnamon, one oz. of cloves, one oz. of long pepper, ½ oz. of grains of Paradise, ½ oz. of galingale
For medieval recipes, these quantities are surprisingly detailed. Probably because here we deal with city records, where the costs were important, rather than the more intuitive measurements of cooks.
For 24 pies, they needed a total of 120 herrings (1 score = 20) and powdered spices. At the time, one pound seems to have been approx. 350 g[i], which means each pie would contain about 7.3 g each of ginger and pepper, the equivalent of 1 ½ teaspoons each, as well as 3.6 g of cinnamon (3/4 teapoon).
One ounce was just under 30 g, which gives us 1.25 g (1/4 teaspoon) each of cloves and “long pepper” per pie. Long pepper (Piper longum) comes from India and Indonesia. While the usual peppercorns are round, these are “long, cylindrical spikes 5mm in diameter and 2.5 – 4 cm long”. They have a sweet fragrant aroma, but a “bitingly hot, lingering and numbing” taste, which is unexpected when smelling the spice.[ii]
And now we come to our Grains of Paradise, of which they would use approx. half the amount of cloves or long pepper, i.e. 1/8 teaspoon. This might be an indication of their cost. However, it also shows that they were a common ingredient, both in sweet dishes, like the Alban Buns, as well as in savoury dishes.
Norwich was a relatively wealthy and large city in the 14th century. It had 25,000 inhabitants (a quarter of the size of London). It was an important market for the East Anglian hinterland and got rich from the trade in cheap worsted cloth. Its wealthiest citizen, a Richard Spynk, bought a memoranda book to write down the records of the city. In 1344, the city petitioned the king, Edward III, to be given police jurisdiction over the cathedral enclosure. Their wish was granted and to thank the king, the citizens undertook to send him 24 herring pies every year, made according to the recipe recorded in the book bought by Richard Spynk. The pies would have been made with the first fresh herrings of the year. Probably from Yarmouth, where every autumn a large herring fair was held. Unfortunately, it seems likely that, either while delivering the pies or in the process of buying the necessary spices, the plague was brought to Norwich.[iii]
Presumably these pies were in a pastry shell, as potatoes, which nowadays often top fish pies, had not yet been introduced into Europe. I found a recipe for fish pie on Gode Cookery, which shows certain similarities to the pies made in Norwich. This recipe can be made with herring. It is spiced with ginger (1 teaspoon), pepper and cloves (1/8 teaspoon each), so it is probably considerably less spicy that the pies from medieval Norwich. The main difference is that it also contains fruit (prunes, dates and raisins). These pies are baked in a pastry shell and covered with pastry.
No Grains of Paradise in that recipe. What difference would this spice have made to the taste? From what I have read, their flavour has more depth than plain pepper, which is just hot. When reading the following description, I feel like chasing off immediately to get some:
I put a few between my teeth and crunched. They cracked like coriander, releasing a billowing aroma, and then a slowly intensifying heat, like pepper. The taste changed by the second. The heat lingered. But the spice was pleasantly tempered, ripe with flavors reminiscent of jasmine, hazelnut, butter and citrus, and with the kind of oiliness you get from nuts. They were entirely different from black peppercorns. And in my mind, incomparably better.
In Australia, they are available from Herbie’s Spices. When we lived in Sydney, a trip to Herbie’s in Rozelle (a Sydney suburb) was always a special treat. The lovely variety of smells and the vast selection of familiar and unfamiliar spices was pure indulgence. So it was with regret that I read just the other day in the Sydney Morning Herald that their shop is about to close, but the full range will still be available at a shop next door. Maybe it is time for another trip to Rozelle!
[i] Carlson, M., ‘Measurement in the Middle Ages’ (2 March 2005). URL: http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/history/measure.html [last accessed 10 March 2016]
[ii] Hemphill, I., Spice Notes: A cook’s compendium of herbs and spices, Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd, 2000, p.30. More information and an illustration in: R. V. Matthews, ‘Long Pepper: A short-ish history’, Eat Medieval (3 April 2015). URL: http://eatmedieval.com/2015/04/03/long-pepper-a-short-ish-history/ [last accessed 10 March 2016]
[iii] Gummer, B., The Scourging Angel: The Black Death in the British Isles. Vintage Books, 2010, pp.126-8