I’ve mentioned it before, but late-medieval Europeans—at least, the small minority who could afford it—consumed a ridiculous amount of spices by modern standards. In Spice: The History of a Temptation, Jack Turner describes one early-fifteenth-century aristocratic household that in twelve months “devoured no less than 316 pounds of pepper, 194 pounds of ginger, and various other spices, translating into an average of around two pounds of spices per day.” In late-medieval Europe, such a quantity of spices would also have required an enormous sum of money, and the spice trade was potentially one of the most profitable gigs around. Men would literally risk their lives, fortunes, and reputations in the hope of finding faster, more profitable ways of obtaining spices from abroad and bringing them to market.
But, in a sense, the spice merchants were too clever (or where they couldn’t be clever, merely ruthless) for their own good. As new trade routes were opened up, novel foodstuffs discovered in the Americas and elsewhere, and the rare spice plants of Asia successfully transplanted to more-accessible (and more-exploitable) colonial possessions, the price of spices declined, and the power of spice to stand as a symbol of affluence and luxury waned. Tastes moved on, and the conspicuous use of spice, by the mid-seventeenth century, had become a mark of boorish, old-fashioned affectation. Food begins to look more decidedly modern, with more delicately seasoned dishes, often of few ingredients, and with the flavors of the food appreciated for their own sake.
This dish was inspired by Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (more background and images from the British Library here), a manual of cookery that still retains quite a few examples of the highly-spiced medieval style, but also a number of recipes for more subtle, delicately flavored dishes. I won’t provide a formal recipe for this, because it’s dead easy. Here’s May’s original for “Buttered Colliflowers”:
Have a skillet of fair water, and when it boils put in the whole tops of the colliflowers, the root being cut away, put some salt to it; and being fine and tender boiled dish it whole in a dish, with carved sippets round about it, and serve it with beaten butter and water, or juyce of orange and lemon.
I adapted May’s original by first melting ¼ cup vegan margarine in a small saucepan, pouring in 400ml of pulp-free orange juice (about 1 ⅔ cups), and letting the whole thing simmer until it was reduced to about a third of its original volume (took me about twenty minutes or so). I removed the sauce from the heat and let it cool while I steamed a head’s worth of cauliflower. The sauce thickened considerably while it cooled. When the cauliflower was done steaming, I just poured on the sauce and served. I added a few orange slices, some fresh herbs for decoration, and plenty of “carved sippets” (i.e. sliced bread) to soak up the tangy orange goodness.