If you're a foodie, this book has some special treats in store. Aureus invites you to two banquets, the first a scene of competing betrothal offers for the French king's portly brother and the second a lavish presentation of cooked peacock, covered with the deceased bird's skin still sporting its colorful feathers. "Imported spices are tossed into this brew. Few Frenchmen have access to these savory seasonings from the East, but the royal cooks flavor imperial meals with herbs and condiments that spill into the crown treasury as taxes, custom fees and sometimes ransoms." (Page 201)
Spices as taxes, fees and ransoms? Well, yes, because so many of these tasty treats came from India and other points on the Silk Road at a time when transportation glitches were frequent, thereby increasing their already high costs. Something like today. A memorable event occurred in A. D. 410, when the Visigoths captured Rome. Being business-minded, this Germanic tribe demanded three thousand pounds of peppercorns as ransom for the city's return to home rule. Think of that the next time you pick up a pepper grinder to deliver some zest to your meal.
The peppercorn is such a historical condiment that Sanskrit medical volumes dating back more than 3,000 years refer to it. By the fifth century A. D., this spice was acceptable in many places as payment for taxes, rent and dowries. More recently, in the sixteenth century, London dockworkers were paid bonuses in cloves.
Cruising up to the present, Great Britain still recognizes "peppercorn rents," a metaphor for a nominal amount of rent, possibly one peppercorn, used to satisfy the requirements of contract law when the lessor wishes to charge no rent at all. I never had a landlord like that.
Peppercorns today come in a variety of colors. The red ones are very rare and, therefore, expensive. A popular substitute is pink peppercorns, which are not really peppercorns at all, but rather a berry that performs a peppery function. Green peppercorns are simply black ones picked early. They are the mildest. The Great American Spice Company offers a one-pound bag of green ones for $25.71. White peppercorns are black ones that have been peeled. Rainbow peppercorns, sold in bags or jars, are a combo of all the colors for the chef who delights in an aesthetic presentation. The basic black peppercorn has the strongest pepper flavor.
Let's return to the peacock banquet. The stew has been consumed; its feathered canopy is all that is left. Live peacocks have performed their raucous entertainment. The final course is served. It is Spiced Quince Butter Cake. The protagonist, Jerrard, has two helpings. He has never eaten such a delicious dessert. Many flavors are buried in this treat, but one of them, cinnamon, has the distinction of having been around the longest. It is the oldest known spice on our planet. The Egyptians used it in embalming mixtures and cosmetics. Moses used it in an anointing oil. So cinnamon has more benefits than just being a sweet-tasting food additive. And it's a drink additive as well. Fireball Whiskey boasts a cinnamon flavoring. I can understand its popularity. Occasionally, my friend Pat brings me a mini bottle of Fireball to quench my thirst at a game of duplicate bridge. I think it improves my bidding.