So, there I was in the middle of researching 16th-century Bolognese tortas, going about my business, reading food histories, trying to understand the regional gastronomic and cultural character of Italy before unification, traipsing down a route that led me to the origins of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, when a throwaway statement in something I was reading blew me completely off course.
Here it is.
Are you ready?
Almond milk is a medieval innovation.
(At least in Europe.)
That’s right. The dairy alternative that’s raised the passion and ire (and apathy, because let’s not overstate things) of a foodie generation isn’t the peace, love, and turmeric-infused product Angelenos like myself might believe it to be. Medieval nobility were lapping up milked almonds long before it became a favorite beverage of sun-soaked, quinoa-bedded gastronomy.
But let me slow down for a second just in case I’ve inadvertently gotten so far into the weeds that you can no longer see me. Here’s what I mean: I think animal substitutes often get written off as inauthentic, touchy-feely modern inventions. At best, they are regarded as trendy alternatives to something you might be allergic to; at worst, as in the piece I linked above, they’re written off as a vacuous hipster drink that is also destroying the environment. Somewhere in the middle of those poles, it’s just the stuff suburban kids pour on their cereal when they have a mom who shops at Whole Foods.
Does this information blow your mind? It did mine. In two ways: first, it seems to me that animal “substitutes” get attributed to modern palates and New-Age ontologies of food, so it’s very cool that this particular plant-based “dairy” product has deeper roots than those articulated in the popular imagination. Centuries-old almond milk unsettles what we believe about the timeline of food and food preferences. It works against our received understandings of cuisine in the Middle Ages, which pop culture conjures as rotten, greasy meat hidden behind a veil of spices and sad-looking soups with a single, gray bone floating in them. That just wasn’t the case.
However, the other mind-blowing thing about medieval almond milk is that it had similar class inflections to those associated with its 21st century analogue. Then, just like now, almonds were expensive, so almond milk was a delicacy reserved for the affluent, the noble. Part of the reason scholars know that almond milk was the province of the upper classes is the fact that it shows up in recipe collections from the period, which is a fact that’s packed full of meaning. To be able to use a recipe collection – to literally be able to read and understand it – one had to be literate. To be literate, one had to have some sort of education. To acquire an education, one had to have time and resources. To have time and resources, one basically had to be an aristocrat. So, recipe collections were circulating through the kitchens of the upper classes on the continent. Oh, and – just to reiterate – almonds were really expensive.
However, almond milk did jump its class sometimes in a surprising way. It was believed to have health benefits and was prescribed for the sick, so even those who were not able to consume it on a regular basis might have had it prescribed in a special situation. Which – okay maybe I lied, and it was actually three things that blew my mind – is a lot like the way almond milk is viewed in some circles now: as an all-natural health aide, especially when it’s mixed with some other earthy substance believed to have restorative properties, like turmeric.
And it’s actually in the context of medicine that almond milk is first recorded in Europe – in a 12th-century medical text from Salerno, Italy. Of course, almond milk was not endemic to the Continent; the 13th-century Arabic cookbook known as Al-baghdadi, the name of its author, documents the use of almond milk in Arabic cuisine. And, Arabic cookery manuscripts from as early as the 9th century refer to “milking almonds.” However, it appears that “almond milk” is a European neologism and that it may have occupied a more central culinary role there, where it really hit its stride during the High Middle Ages (1,000-1,300 CE) as the preferred Lenten animal milk substitute of the upper classes. At the time, Lenten fasting rules were something more akin to a vegan diet than the “no meat” interpretation practiced by many contemporary Catholics. Animal fats, eggs, and dairy were all abstained from throughout all 40 days of the Lenten season, not just on Fridays as is
common today. Though, I should point out, fish was permissible just as it is today because, as St. Thomas Aquinas pithily noted in his Summa Theologica from ~1270: “generally speaking, eating flesh meat affords more pleasure than eating fish,” and the purpose of the fast was to deny the kind of pleasure that meat, eggs, and dairy could bring but low-fat content fish could not. In addition to the 40 days of Lent, there were lots of other fasting seasons and days peppered throughout the liturgical calendar. So, put simply, there was a lot of fasting, and thus a need for a palatable and functional milk substitute: enter milk derived from almonds.Having made it, I can say with some degree of confidence that medieval almond milk is quite different from the stuff we buy in cartons at grocery stores. It’s salty, sweet, and rich, more like a cream or a thickening agent than something to drink by the carton-full or pour on cereal.
Here’s a 14th-century recipe for almond milk (with amounts derived from modern kitchen testing) from one of the best-known recipe collections of the Middle Ages, Le Viandier by Taillevent:
90 g (3/4 cup) ground (or whole) almonds, 400 ml (13.5 fl. oz) water, 2-3 tbsp sugar, 1/3 tsp salt
If you have whole almonds, grind them into as fine a meal as possible. For the real medieval experience, you can use a mortar and pestle; however, a food processor is a viable and expedient substitute.
Bring the water to a boil; add the almond meal, the salt, and the sugar, and lower the heat to a bubbling simmer for 15 minutes, stirring and scraping the sides of the pot occasionally. While it’s cooking, prepare a bowl or jar with a cheesecloth for straining. After the meal is finished cooking, strain it through the cheesecloth, removing all the almond particles for a nice, smooth liquid.
Voila! Medieval almond milk as recorded by Taillevent. It’s rich and delicious. It also produces an extremely small amount of liquid, and the salt, sugar, and almond/water ratio give it more of a savory – dare I say umami – flavor than the slightly sweet drinkable stuff most of us are used to.
I also slightly modified this recipe, just to see what would happen if I added more water and less sugar because: 1) wow, that uses a lot of almonds, and almonds are expensive; and 2) I’m not big on lots of sugar in the things I drink. What did I learn by doubling the water and halving the sugar? That it tasted almost exactly the same, still delicious, rich, and creamy – and still just a little too much for casual drinking. So, after playing with the ratios of 14th-century almond milk as a drinkable substance, I decided to use it as a dairy-replacement, thickening agent.
Of course, that meant I needed something to thicken. For that, I made a simple carrot soup with a medieval almond milk base. As a result, it was a “vegan” dish steeped in food history. And it was delicious. To me, there’s something really exciting about finding historical food routes that allow us to travel back in culinary time while feeling connected to the commitments, concerns, food availability, and flavor palates of the present moment. I think there’s something deeply vital about medieval almond milk. It’s a sort of connective tissue that – even if you have “modern” dietary restrictions, ethics, or preferences – enables you to feel rooted in a tradition much deeper than the food trends of the moment. If you go looking for it, you can find alternatives in the historical record to the sort of “rustic,” meat-centric dishes that get touted as the supreme examples of historical authenticity. I’m not saying that almond milk is somehow more historically “real” than dairy milk, but I am saying that it is just as real.
Here’s how I made the carrot soup, by the way:
2 large shallots, diced; 2 lbs (5 cups) carrots, diced; 1 stalk celery, diced; 2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil; 2 cups vegetable stock; 1 tbsp dried thyme; 14th-century almond milk, prepared beforehand and chilled; salt and pepper, to taste
Beforehand, dice the carrots, the shallots, and the celery. Once that’s done, sauté the shallots and the celery in the olive oil, just until they’re soft and fragrant; add the thyme and gently stir. Add the carrots, the vegetable stock, and 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 25 minutes. When that’s done, use an emulsion blender to make the mixture smooth; stir in almond milk; salt and pepper to taste.
It should come out smooth, rich, creamy, carroty, and full of thyme. Perfect for eating with some nice, crusty bread on a cold winter night. Extended reveries about the many generations who’ve enjoyed a similar dish are encouraged.
If you’re interested in further reading:
Klemettilä, Hannele. The Medieval Kitchen: A Social History With Recipes. London: Reaktion Books, 2012.