Most herbs and spices were originally used for their medicinal properties. Over time, experience has revealed the many ways in which these plants are important, and how to use them for seasoning dishes. Some spices used in cookery today, such as cinnamon, ginger, saffron and clove, have been used for a very long time. Others, like galangal, have completely disappeared.
During Antiquity and the Middle Ages, spices were very costly. They presented an opportunity for people to distinguish themselves socially. Pepper has continued to be present in many recipes since Antiquity. It played an important role in Roman cookery and is found in over three-quarters of Apicius’ recipes, contained in a publication from the 4th century. In the medieval era, spices were used massively, often masking the natural flavour of food.
In the 18th century, despite a drop in their consumption, spices continued to play an important role in cookery. This period was dominated by a spice blend made up of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace and cloves. This blend was used to season stews, sauces, vegetables, drinks and desserts. The spices were stored in small boxes divided into compartments which replaced the cabinets of the medieval era. Although they became increasingly affordable, they were less commonly used from the second half of the 19th century.
Plants and aromatic herbs, such as bay, thyme, rosemary, parsley or chives, have been used alongside spices since time immemorial. They are among the ingredients in a bouquet garni and may also be found in purée form, in pesto for example.