The spice trade was one of the most important of the many commercial exchanges linking Europe with Asia during the middle ages. Of the many spices traded from east to west, cumin stands out as one so prevalent that it formed part of the cuisines of Europe, East, and South Asia. Cumin turns up in medieval Iberian and Mediterranean recipes and the use of the spice reached as far as England. Cumin’s presence in household inventories marks the material connection across Eurasia and Africa through mutual trade in goods. July's object of the month features a stash of cumin found in the inventory of the house of an artisan, Churrado di Giovanni dell’Amangna, who lived in Ponte di Sacco (today shortened to Ponsacco), 30 km southeast of Pisa. The inventory displays the contents of a house, located in Morrona near Ponsacco, that appears to have belonged to a shoemaker. This inventory is extraordinary because it allows a rare glimpse into an artisan's household in the Tuscan countryside, rather than the households of wealthy urban Florentines.
Among the materials included in the household, a list of spices, probably used for cooking, features prominently. A libro of cumin, 8 once of white sugar, 4 once of spices sweet and strong, and 6 once of ground pepper (fol. 214v) offer a tantalizing glimpse into the culinary traditions of an artisan outside of a seaport or an urban center.✱
Of particular interest is the existence of a libro of cumin, the largest quantity of spices in the list. Cumin has been in use since classical antiquity and today is especially associated with Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Mexican cuisine. It was cultivated in the Tigris-Euphrates region although its geographical distribution is so wide that it is unclear where the spice originated.✱ Although essential to the North African and the Asian spice trade, including trade that passed along the Silk Road, cumin today is not especially thought of as part of an Italian, or European, diet.
Cumin’s use in Spain can be traced back to 857 CE in al-Andalus where Abbasid culinary traditions were transferred to Iberia with the use of cinnamon. Cumin was also found in a recipe from England in 1267 for the Feast of St. Edward.✱ Traders traveling from the east to the Mediterranean either went through the Black Sea via Byzantium, Venice, and Genoa, or the Mamluk Sultanate via the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. In Mandarin Chinese, cumin is called 孜然 (ziran), and is both an herbal medicine and a spice traditionally found in Uighur or Muslim cuisine, indicating its provenance from the Middle East. Frescos of Byzantine missionaries dated to the 7th century found in Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Empire (present day Xi’an), demonstrate that the spice trade routes also facilitated the exchange of ideas. In the pre-Islamic era, Arab traders were already present, having arrived in China by at least the 3rd century BCE. By the 7th century, Islam itself had spread to Chang’an. Nestorian Christianity was welcomed by the emperor in 638 CE.
The Italian word for cumin, recorded in Churrado’s inventory, is comino, from the Latin cumininus and the Old Greek kyminon. The artisan had more cumin (one libro) than any other spices in his inventory. The amount could be both an indication of its popularity and the fact that the price of cumin was lower than that of the more expensive sugar or pepper. It may also have been used as an herbal remedy, since in India, cumin has had a longstanding connection with digestion. The existence of cumin in a late medieval artisanal household in the Tuscan countryside is evidence of the widespread existence of a spice trade that linked the Eurasian landmass. In the early 15th century, Francesco Pegolotti, a Florentine merchant, wrote about the ease of traveling along the Silk Road.✱ Cumin’s availability puts Tuscany on the road of this trade, and offers a glimpse of the palate of a rural Tuscan artisan who was influenced by, and benefited from, this long-distance exchange.