Thursday, 22 December 2016

Medieval exotica: the long history of almonds in Ireland

Almond (Wikimedia Commons)
At this time of year, I really enjoy baking and cooking special dishes for family and friends. Later today, I must assemble ingredients for a family trifle, which we will serve up on Christmas Day. Two of the ingredients I like to include are fruits and nuts. I haven't decided on whether to include fresh berry fruits (not very seasonal...) or dried fruits (nice when stewed first). I do know that I plan to include crushed almonds.

You might think that almonds were a recent introduction to Ireland, but they have a long history here. One of the earliest occurrences of almonds in Ireland is from medieval Cork. Two amphora-type jars were discovered in the 1920s during pipe-laying in Paul Street in the city centre (Power 1928). The jars are thought to date to the medieval period. Both vessels were filled with what was suspected to be fruit stones. The 'stones' were originally thought to be plum or damson, but later, excitingly, the material was identified as almonds. Almonds would have represented an exotic (and expensive) import, reflecting Cork's status as an important port of medieval Ireland. Sometimes we might think that people in the past ate very basic and 'functional' foods, but archaeobotany often highlights how the food customs of our ancestors can be rather exotic and definitely tasty.

Power, P. 1928. On a find of ancient jars in Cork city. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 33, 10-11.

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