Going Medieval

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEighteen months ago, I made a small jar of powder douce, a popular medieval mixture of various spices, that was used as a seasoning and rub for meat, poultry, and occasionally, fish.  I was very happy with it, until I realized that I’d made a huge mistake by including an ingredient that was not used during that time period.  That was a bit of a problem, and I vowed then that I would make the correct concoction some day.

That day was Saturday.

Bored and not interested in doing any of the work that I should have been doing, I decided to revisit the douce issue.  So I went to a couple of area spice shops (including Penzey’s), and picked up the necessary items for what I was calling “Douce 2.0.”

Douce could vary by region, country, and most importantly, season.  It depended largely on what spices were available and accessible at the time.  Evidence suggests that it was pre-mixed and used as needed, and under the right conditions it could last for a good while.

My version is based on a couple of documents I looked at a while back.  I wouldn’t characterize it as “common,” but I think that it’s as close to what was used in the Middle Ages as can be one can get.  In short, it involves some very familiar spices:

Grains of Paradise.  A relative of cardamom, the sub-Saharan grains of paradise was used much like black pepper.  It appears often in medieval cookery materials, and was considered quite versatile – it could easily flavor a main dish or was used to salvage a stale wine.  When black pepper became more accessible and less expensive, grains of paradise fell out of favor.  It’s still available, but you really have to look for it – and be ready for sticker shock.

Ginger.  I had to mull this one over.  Ginger is pretty easy to acquire, but how do I ensure that it’s comparable to its medieval consistency?  Crystalized ginger was out, as were fresh and chopped ginger, so I went with Cracked China Ginger #1 from Penzey’s.  Of all the variations they offered, it was the only one that appeared to be natural in both form and taste.  These are little ginger pieces (“pellets” is a better term) that I had to grind for use.

Nutmeg.  I had been led to believe (by whom, I can’t recall) that nutmeg didn’t enter European cooking until after the sixteenth century, so it was very interesting to me to learn that this was wrong.  I also learned that there’s a difference between nutmeg grown in Asia versus that grown in the Caribbean.  Since I was looking at a mixture created before anyone knew that there was a Western Hemisphere, my choice was simple:  Penzey’s East Indies Nutmeg.  It is a bit coarser than the standard shelf nutmeg (which is West Indies, by the way), and has a stronger kick.

Cinnamon.  This was another spice that gave me some consternation.  Penzey’s carries at least five different versions, each with its own strengths.  I was less choosy here because any of these versions could have been used although, in terms of ease, I reasoned that the Ceylon Cinnamon would have been the most prevalent.

Cloves.  I don’t know if there are variations in cloves; if so, I haven’t come across any in the spice shops that I’ve visited.

These five spices, therefore, formed my mix.  Now the question became “How much?”

The one medieval reference that I had didn’t use standard units of measure, so I guessed.  After a little jockeying around, I ended up with the following:

  • 1 Tbsp. Ceylon Cinnamon (ground)
  • 1 Tbsp. Cracked China Ginger #1 (ground)
  • 1-1/2 tsp. Grains of Paradise (measured before grinding)
  • 1 tsp. Cloves (ground)
  • 1 tsp. East Indies Nutmeg (ground)

Mind you, much of this douce is to taste.  [When I made another batch using ground Lampong Pepper (a hot Indonesian peppercorn) in place of grains of paradise, for example, I misread my handwriting and actually used 1-1/2 TBSPS of ground pepper – and that mix actually turned out to be pretty tasty.]  So none of this is “exact.”  Mixed and stored in a spice jar, I couldn’t wait to try it out.  I used boneless chicken breasts because chicken is very forgiving.  It’s hard to ruin chicken – it can be done, but only with some effort.  It was also something that would have been easily available in the medieval world.

So, using a fork I pierced the breasts a few times and then rubbed them with olive oil.  Then I rubbed in the douce and sprinkled a little more over them (just for the heck of it).  The seasoned breasts went into a bowl, where I poured about a tablespoon of olive oil over them (again, just in case), and I added sliced yellow onions and diced green pepper.  I’m not familiar with the use of green pepper in the Middle Ages, if at all.  Onions, on the other hand were not a popular item; it was believed that they caused illness and upset stomachs.  It was a rare dish – especially among ordinary folks – that contained onion.

But I love onion and green peppers, so that’s that.

I covered the dish and popped it into the refrigerator.  Here it sat for about 12 hours before I then poured the bowl’s entire content into a Crock Pot and cooked it all on the low setting for the next 11 hours.

The result is in the photo above: tender chicken breasts in a pool of douce-seasoned juices.  (It’s slightly blurry because I’m having issues with the camera as of late.)  What really surprised me was the taste – not too sharp, not too subtle.  The Little Woman characterized it as “well seasoned and moist,” and said that the douce gave it a “tea-like” taste.  (No, I don’t get that, either.)  She loved it and she’s not one for a lot of spices.  I’d really expected the cinnamon or the ginger to be overpowering; they were not, but then again I didn’t coat the chicken with the douce.  There’s going to be more experimentation, especially now that I have this second batch with the Lampong, but initial results are pleasing.

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