History

The Centuries-Old Spice Blend We Don’t Use Anymore

This one’s a bit of an assumption on my part – but I’m pretty confident in it.

I watch a brilliant YouTube channel called Townsends. They’re a group of historical re-enactors who make videos about American cookery in the 1700s. It’s an interesting time to explore – much of the food is exactly the same as was found in British cookbooks of the time, but you can see hints of a distinctly American cuisine starting to form. Plus, I find 1700s food fascinating. It was the time just before industrialisation and mass production fundamentally changed our diets. Much of 1700s cooking continues traditions that are hundreds of years old.

In one of their recent videos, they were talking about ‘kitchen pepper,’ as it’s referred to in 1700s cookbooks. As soon as I saw the title, I had a bit of a hunch – and I think my hunch is right.

Here’s the video:

The Early Modern Spice Mix

I did some googling, and I found the old Townsends food blog which they maintained until a few years ago. They had a post on kitchen pepper there, so I took a look – and my hunch had an ounce of support.

In the post, they briefly mentioned ‘powder deuce’ and ‘powder fort,’ spice blends that were used in medieval English and French cookery. (Here’s the post: it has a good number of ‘kitchen pepper’ recipes dating from 1777 to 1835.)

My hunch was this: that powder fort and kitchen pepper were very similar, and were likely the same thing – the name simply having changed over time.

Though the name and composition varied over time and between individuals, powder fort followed a similar pattern: it was mostly made up of whatever spice was cheapest at the time, with others added to make a fuller flavour.

This stuff was very common, and would have been widely available in shops – and probably fast food outlets. (Yes, the medieval world had fast food – or at least, England did. They were bakeries and pie shops, where urban workers – whose homes were too small to have ovens – would go at their midday work break to get their dinners. You can find more here; I’ll probably do a post on medieval urban eating in the future.) For the less-than-wealthy, it might even have been the only way they ever ate spices.

The ‘kitchen pepper’ of these 1700s books sounds, to me, very similar to the medieval ‘powder fort,’ or ‘strong powder.’ So I want to do a bit of a comparison.

Here are the recipes for ‘kitchen pepper.’

“A Lady’s Assistant” By Charlotte Mason, 1777

  • 1 oz ginger,
  • 1/2 oz pepper,
  • 1/2 oz cinnamon,
  • 1/2 oz cloves,
  • 1/2 oz nutmeg,
  • 6 oz salt.

“The English Housekeeper” By Anne Cobbett, 1835

This one’s less regimented, and just calls for an equal amount of ginger, nutmeg, black pepper, allspice, cinnamon and cloves. When needed, just mix them together with “good, common salt.”

The Medieval Spice Mix

Now, for medieval ‘powder fort’ (which literally means strong powder), we have to cheat a little bit. The oldest English cookbook we have is The Forme of Cury, from 1390, and it mentions ‘powder fort.’ But it was also written by the greatest chefs of the king of England, so they felt no need to write down something as basic as a recipe for this spice mix, which was available everywhere and which they’d have ample experience of making themselves.

From what we know of it, the dominant spice would probably have been either ginger or pepper, both of which were relatively cheap in comparison to other spices at the time. Here’s a chart of spice prices in pennies In 1438 London, which I took from this fantastic resource.

Salt, by comparison, was also rather cheap, so it’s not a longshot to assume they’d have loaded their powder fort with salt much like the 1700s chefs were doing with their kitchen pepper.

Added to this would have been the usual spices – those further down the chart – only in smaller amounts. Saffron would almost certainly have appeared only in spice mixes used by the nobility and royalty.

A Potential Recipe

But what’s that? That’s not good enough?

Okay, okay. I found a recipe for medieval powder fort on the internet. They say it’s from a book called Libro di cucina, but I couldn’t find anything on this source with a google search. That said, the source looks genuine, and the website seems legit. Still, take it with a pinch of salt. (Haha.)

Powder Fort 1

  • 1 oz pepper,
  • 1 oz cinnamon,
  • 1 oz ginger,
  • 1/8 oz cloves,
  • 1/4 oz saffron.

Powder Fort 2

  • 2 oz pepper,
  • 1/8 oz cloves,
  • an equal quantity of long pepper and nutmeg.

The first of these sounds much fancier to me. I imagine the powder fort encountered by the average person would be much closer to the second recipe.

So there you have it, a possibly medieval powder fort recipe – albeit most likely an Italian one considering the source, and we don’t know how much this stuff would have varied between countries.

Making Powder Fort

Still, I could hardly just leave it there.

I had to try making it.

My ‘Poudre Fort!’

I haven’t eaten anything with it yet, but it smells… Christmassy. Which makes a certain kind of sense, because here in the UK at least, Christmas is the time of year we eat old-fashioned style foods, like fruitcakes and mince pies. It smells strong, so I suppose it lives up to its name. The cinnamon and ginger give it a sweet kind of smell, while the black pepper and cloves make it heady – if you huffed on it long enough, it would certainly give you a headache.

I’d had all this knowledge about ‘powder fort’ sitting around in my head, and it was sparked by this ‘kitchen pepper’ video. This spice mix was a staple part of English and early American cooking right into the Victorian period, appearing in recipe books until 1835 at least. How strange that something so ubiquitous can disappear almost without a trace. But at the same time, how wonderful that we can have a go at recreating it.

I made this stuff a while ago, so I don’t remember the exact quantities I used. For giggles, here’s what I think would be a perfectly legitimate – and rather easy to make – powder fort recipe:

  • 1 oz black pepper,
  • 1 oz ginger,
  • 1/2 oz cinnamon,
  • 1/8 oz cloves.

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2 thoughts on “The Centuries-Old Spice Blend We Don’t Use Anymore”

  1. I love food, so this blog post about spice blends was pretty interesting! True, in baking and cooking these combinations are not seen much at all these days, but there are a fair bit of teas from the south-eastern region of Asia that utilize these flavours. It is not uncommon to find chai teas with black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and clove as integral flavours.

    Nice article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay, glad you liked it!

      Ooh that is interesting. They make a tasty combination, so I can definitely see it. It’s just weird how it’s disappeared in the west.

      Liked by 1 person

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