Candied Ginger and the Spice Gap

Not a medieval recipe, another piece from Jean-Baptiste Labat as part of my buccaneer cuisine project. This time, the reverend father writes about treating the ginger they grew on Gouadeloupe:

Ginger, courtesy of wikimedia commons

“Spicers mix the ginger with pepper, a little cloves, and cinnamon, and after they have ground it and passed it through a sieve, they sell this under the name of sweet spices (épicerie douce), and they sell it quite dear since they make sure that the ginger, the market for which is brisk, makes up three fourths and more.

Ginger is turned into confit “…fit to serve honourable folk, you pick them long before they are mature (meur) while they are still tender, while the fibres are not yet distinct from the rest of its flesh, neither by their toughness nor by their colour, which is always stronger than that of the rest. You rub them with straw to remove the entire skin and cut them in slices … You leave them in seawater for three or four days which you change twice a day, and then for seven or eight days in freshwater which you also change twice every 24 hours. Then you let them boil in plenty of water for a good hour and put them back into fresh water for another day. After they have been taken out and drained, you place them in a weak syrup that is well clarified and quite hot, but not boiling and leave them in it for 24 hours. After that time, you take them out and let them drain, and place them in a stronger syrup than the previous, and you do this for three days in a row. You discard all these syrups as unusable because they absorb all the remaining acidity and excessively spicy (trop piquant) flavour of the fruit. Finally, you place them in a syrup of strong consistency that is well clarified. You leave them in this if you wish to preserve them wet, but if you wish to preserve them dry, as I have explained elsewhere speaking of preserving lemons and other fruit of the country. It is certain that ginger which is treated this way loses its sharp and biting flavour, but retains its warmth and its other good qualities.

You know it is well made … when you see no colour but amber, very clear and almost transparent, and it is tender under the tooth without being soft, and its syrup is quite clear.

That which the confituriers make for sale or the common people (menu peuple) for their use is brown, the syrup dark, and the fruit so strong, so harsh and biting that it is almost impossible to hold it on the tongue, at least unless you are accustomed to it like those sort of people who eat chili peppers like you eat a pear or an apple.”

This section from Labat’s travel account contains three interesting points. The first, and probably the least surprising, is the sale of pre-mixed spice blends. These are found in most medieval culinary sources, though they show up later and less often in the German ones than in either French or Italian. This épicerie douce is very similar to medieval poudre douce, a familiar flavour profile.

The second is that people in the Caribbean imported quite sophisticated cooking techniques and made the most of the easy availability of inexpensive sugar. As an aside, this also confirms Labat is quite the food snob. We enounter his judgemental voice repeatedly throughout his work. As a member of the French upper class, raised in Central France and well known for enjoying his food, we should not expect anything else.

The third is that not just Native Americans, but also some Europeans clearly had different ideas about what level of spiciness was desirable in food. Reading the succession of soakings and rinsings Labat puts ginger roots through, it sounds as though he is trying to leach out most of the flavour. I have not tried this yet, but I suspect it would result in something we would think of as insipid. Meanwhile, some of the ‘little people’ (that is what peuple menu roughly translated as) were quite proud of their tolerance for spiciness. Surely, eating a raw chili cannot serve as anything but a demonstration of spice cred. Imagining buccaneers as chiliheads, of course, pushes all the right macho buttons.

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