Many believe using spices in Irish cookery is relatively new. But spices were, in fact, important in medieval cookery. Expensive to purchase, they were a sign of social status, popular among aristocratic and monastic members of society.

In primary Irish documents of the time, there are mentions of saffron, pepper, cinnamon, mustard and ginger, to name a few. Cumin comes up too, but it was more likely considered for medicinal purposes than food flavouring, since spices were often dual-purpose, and it was thought to have digestive qualities.

From a detailed examination of the accounts of the Anglo-Norman demesnes of the Earl of Norfolk in Ireland, I learned that in 1246 the earl had the gift of 1½ lbs of cinnamon and 1 lb of pepper bestowed upon him by the Provost of Fethard, Co. Wexford.

The accounts make note of a man known as “John the Spicer” being paid handsomely for “spices and other groceries”. Indeed, spices were so important and precious, they were often stored under lock and key in a special casket, guarded by the cook. No doubt, those large amounts of cinnamon and pepper were too, when they made their way into the Earl of Norfolk’s kitchen.

One of the oldest known spices, native to Sri Lanka, cinnamon looks like a stick, or rolled bark, but it can be ground or pounded into powder too.

In ancient times, it was used as an embalming powder by the Egyptians, and as an aromatic by the Greeks and Romans. It was even referred to in the Bible as one of the “finest of spices”.

In medieval times, it would have travelled a long “spice route” through Europe to eventually sail in at an Irish port. Notably, in medieval cookery cinnamon was often used in equal measure with ginger.

Colour in food became popular around the 13th century, and cinnamon was used to give food the colour of camel’s hair.

A standard medieval sauce, called cameline sauce, was popular both for its colour and flavour. Cinnamon was the prevalent spice used, which, along with cloves, was mixed together with pounded skinned almonds, raisins, some breadcrumbs and verjuice, which is a sour acidic grape juice. When made correctly, it is quite a loose sauce with a tan colour, to be served usually with grilled or roasted fish.

This month’s recipe is based around chicken. In its simplest form, this dish is made without the onion or grapes, which would have been added perhaps for special occasions. For how to make almond milk, see last month’s medieval salmon roast and sauce recipe.

Chicken in Spiced Almond Milk (Serves 4)


  • 1 small onion, finely chopped (optional)
  • 450 g. boned and skinned chicken
  • 500 ml. almond milk
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 150 g. grapes, de-seeded and chopped in half (optional)


Chop the chicken into bite-size pieces. Place the chicken, onion, almond milk and spices in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, then reduce the temperature to simmering point, and cook for 30 minutes. Before serving, add the chopped grapes, and mix through.

Maeve L’Estrange is a culinary archaeologist, studying for a PhD in experimental archaeology in UCD. Since no medieval Irish recipes survive, she tries to piece together what may have been eaten by...

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