|In The First Century Spices & Herbs were Ground in a Mortar|
Hello My Friend and Welcome.
Today we continue a very informative series on the foods and eating habits of the New Testament era. In order to do this, we must first stock our kitchen. Specifically, we’ll fill a chest with spices and herbs.
Some people have trouble differentiating between what’s a spice and what’s an herb. Both are used to flavor foods and some for medicinal purposes. The essential difference between an herb and a spice is where they are obtained from on the plant. Herbs typically come from the leafy part of a plant, and are usually used fresh or dried. Spices are obtained from seeds, fruits, roots, bark, or some other vegetative substance. Herbs can be found around the world and were usually gathered by the user.
Spices, however, come from plants or trees that grow only in particular regions. The cultivation, gathering, preparation and sale of spices were all important sources of income in ancient times and they still are today. Thousands of years before Christ’s birth, camels laden with spices followed familiar routes across deserts and through mountain passes to bring these delicacies to waiting buyers. In doing so, they spread civilization and created the earliest route of trade known as the Spice Route.
The most basic list of ancient foods we can gather would be those mentioned in the Bible. So, that’s where we’ll start.
Anise (Matthew 23:23) Beginning with John Wycliffe’s Bible, the rendering of anethon in the English versions has been anise. But this is not accurate. The exact equivalent of the plant anethon is dill (anethum graveolens). The error in translation, however, is of no great importance. Both plants belong to the parsley family and are native to the Middle East. Anise has been cultivated since the time of the Egyptians both as a flavoring agent and for its medicinal properties.
Many people associate the aroma and flavor of anise with licorice. Licorice, however, comes from an entirely different plant. Anise is primarily used to flavor cookies —Biscotti and Pfeffernüsse, for example— and certain breads.
The seeds were chewed as a breath freshener. Anise has expectorant properties and anise tea mixed with honey was used for coughs. Dioscorides, a Greek physician, wrote in the 1st Century that anise “facilitates breathing and relieves pain…” It was also used to increase lactation and ease menstrual symptoms, treat convulsions and colic in infants.
Since they’re so closely related, we'll put anise seed, fennel seed, and fresh and dried parsley in our spice chest.
|A Marture Myrtle Tree|
Bay (Isaiah 41:19) We’ve included this because, while bay never appears, myrtle trees are mentioned many times in the Bible. The myrtle is an evergreen broadleaf in the Lauraceae family. It grows in a small region along the southern Oregon coast between Florence, OR and northern California. Coastal residents know that its leaves, when picked and dried, have a flavor nearly identical to the Mediterranean bay sold in your local market. Thought never mentioned specifically, the people of the holy land surely used the leaves to flavor soups and stew just as we do. Bay leaves have long been used to treat headaches, specifically migraine headaches. We’ll pick several basketfuls of leaves from the myrtle tree and spread them on the roof to dry in the sun.
|Coriander Seeds Growing|
Coriander (Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:7) Coriander, the seed of the Cilantro plant, has been in use since 5,000 BC. The whole seed is used in pickling and in smoked meats such as sausage. Ground it is mixed into curries, soups and chutneys. The other side of coriander is its fresh or dried leaves, which are known as cilantro.
Medicinally, cilantro tea is used for upset stomach and a paste made from the seeds was applied to relieve the pain of rheumatism. One or two teaspoons of cilantro juice, added to fresh buttermilk, is said to be beneficial in treating digestive disorders, dysentery, hepatitis and ulcerative colitis. Coriander has also been documented as a traditional treatment for diabetes. We’ll credit four more items to the tally: coriander, whole and ground, along with cilantro fresh and dried.
Cinnamon (Exodus 30:23; Revelation 18:13) Cinnamon is the dried bark of the cinnamon tree. This familiar flavoring ingredient is widely used in desserts and breads of all types. Cinnamon is one of the oldest known spices, and in the Ancient World it was worth more than gold.In Ancient Rome, cinnamon was used to treat inflammation and poisonous bites. It was known for its antibacterial, antiseptic, and anti-fungal properties, and was often applied externally to wounds and other troublesome skin conditions. During childbirth, mothers were given cinnamon, as a sedative and cinnamon was one of the sweet spices used in preparing the body for burial.
We’ll add two more, whole and ground cinnamon.
Cumin (Isaiah 28:25; Matthew 23:23) Ground cumin is typically used in spice blends such as chili powder, pickling spices, and curry. According to the Bible, cumin was presented to the priests as a tithe. A humorous anecdote says students in ancient Greece and Rome drank large quantities of cumin oil to induce a pallid complexion that was regarded as the mark of a great scholar. Cumin was used by the Romans in place of the more expensive, and sometimes unavailable, pepper.
Cumin is a rich source of thymol, and was used as an anthelmintic against hookworm infections. Boiling a teaspoon of cumin seeds in a glass of water and mixing this decoction with one teaspoon of fresh coriander leaf juice and a pinch of salt was used as a treatment for diarrhea. Cumin was used for the treatment of hemorrhoids and the seeds were mixed with honey to treat amnesia and other memory loss. A paste made from cumin seeds and onion juice was applied over scorpion stings. Another useful spice goes into the chest.
Dill (Matthew 23:23) The aromatic leaves and seeds of the dill plant were, and are, used in pickling and flavoring fish, soups, egg and poultry dishes. It is often used medicinally along with anise and coriander. Let’s add three more, fresh dill, dried dill, and dill seeds.
Garlic (Numbers 11:5) Garlic is believed to be one of the first plants domesticated by man. Its culinary use is well-known. The Greeks and Romans believed that garlic increased courage and the commanders fed garlic to their soldiers before battle. It was used to repel and kill ticks and fleas. Peeled cloves of garlic were rubbed on ulcerous and leprous skin lesions. Let’s put those garlic cloves on a hook and hang them from the rafter.
Mint (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42) The Romans flavored wines and sauces with mint and incorporated it into desserts. Because of its high menthol content, poultices of crushed mint leaves, and mint oil were applied to treat pain and inflammation. Mint teas were used to aid digestion. Another triplet… Fresh leaves crushed in our beverages, dried leaves for use in the winter, and mint oil gathered by steaming the fresh leaves.
|A Mint Plant Sprouting|
Mustard (Matthew 13:31) Mustard seeds are used in pickling spices and the ground seeds were mixed with vinegar and honey to make condiments and sauces. Hippocrates advised their use both externally and internally. Mustard poultices and plasters were applied to increase circulation and relieve the effects of sore muscles. Our chest of spices is filling up. We’ll add whole mustard seed and ground mustard.
Rue (Luke 11:42) Rue is an herb mentioned in many translations of the Bible, though it has no use as a flavoring agent and little medicinal value. It is best not taken internally as rue is toxic if ingested in large quantities. The sap of the plant can burn the skin. The only bona fide use I could find for it was as an insect and flea repellent. It seems that rue was boiled, strained, and the water sprinkled around the house to keep out insect pests. Small bags of dried rue in closets and cabinets will also repel insects. We’ll keep it well away from our cooking spices.
|Salt Piling Up Along the Dead Sea|
And so, our spice chest is stocked. In one form or another, we have a total of twenty-one items in our spice chest: anise, bay, cilantro, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, mint, mustard, parsley, pepper, and salt, plus garlic cloves dangling overhead. There were surely other aromatic herbs and seeds used for flavoring food that weren’t mentioned in the Bible, but we’ll start with these for the time being.
Next time we’ll take a day trip to visit The Messiah’s Mansion. When our Foods of the First Century posts resume, we’ll look at Fruits and Nuts.