You may be used to having two sugars with your coffee, or a cinnamon stick in your cocktail, but did you know that these ingredients used to cost an absolute fortune?
Sugar: Forget buying kilo bags of sugar from the supermarket. Back in the classical period and the Middle Ages, sugar was a luxury item that very, very few could afford. In fact, for the longest time, sugar was mostly produced in the Indian subcontinent and getting it to Europe was a dangerous and laborious task. The upside of it all was that people used honey to sweeten their foods, and since dental hygiene hadn’t yet become fashionable (or, rather, possible), people managed to keep their teeth for longer.
Cinnamon: The origin of cinnamon remained a mystery to the western world for centuries. In fact, even legendary explorers such as Marco Polo didn’t have much knowledge of just where this mysterious spice came from. By 1248, most people still believed that it was caught in nets at the source of the Nile (where Ethiopia, the limits of the known world back then, is). Due to it being so mysterious, the price of cinnamon was ridiculously expensive and used to cost hundreds of euro in today’s money.
Lemons: It’s hard to believe that lemons used to be one of the rarest ingredients in even the most well-stocked of kitchens. Originating in Asia (namely, near Burma), up until the 1450s, lemons were still not widely cultivated in the West. Funnily enough, it was the Spanish conquest of the Americas that helped spread lemon seeds and turn America into one of the world’s main producers.
Salt: It is impossible to overestimate the importance of salt. It is one of the best natural preservatives we have, and it has made our lives and our ancestors’ lives a gazillion times more bearable (thanks to salted meats and fish available in the winter months). It is said that back in Roman times, soldiers were given a ‘salarium’ – an amount of money that could be used to buy salt. Others say that soldiers were actually paid in salt. Either way, both the words ‘salary’ and ‘soldier’ come from salt – ‘sal dar’ (Latin for ‘to give salt’).
Saffron: Although saffron is still expensive these days (still sold by the gram in a glass bottle), this spice used to be the most exclusive of them all. Hand-picked in Asia, this spice took a long route (known then and now as the Spice Route) to get to Europe and only the richest of the richest could afford to use it in their foods. As an alternative, turmeric was often used.
Are there any other foods you can think of that used to cost a lot but are now easily and readily available? Let us know!