In the Scent of Cinnamon, a Whiff of Medieval Humoral Theory

Flavorings (Illustration by Courtney Nzeribe)

Purple bougainvillea flowers hung thick and rope-like over the sand-colored walls, their little white hearts nearly pulsating in the blazing noon heat of Rabat, Morocco. The door of The English Bookshop stood half-opened. The stern English proprietor stood behind the counter, his thin pale fingers reaching into scuffed cardboard boxes, filled with the newest shipment of books from London. He barely glanced at me when I pushed on the door and stepped onto the cool white tiles, a sweet-voiced bell chiming somewhere in the shop.

“New books today?,” I asked, hoping for the odd cookbook or two to add to my snowballing collection.

“Yes. You’re the cookbook collector, right?” He didn’t miss a beat as he kept pulling treasures out of the boxes. And then, stretching out his hand, so close I could see the reddish hairs shimmering just below his knuckles, he handed me a stiff unbroken paperback.

“This is a bit of an old one, but you’d probably like it,” he muttered, his blue eyes coming to rest on my happy smile.

The book? Arto der Haroutunian’s North African Cooking, originally published by Century Publishing C., Ltd., London, 1985. Of Armenian descent, Haroutunian, both an author and a painter, lived a lot of his life in London, by way of exile in Lebanon. So he was no stranger to the food and foodways of the Middle East.*

In his “Introduction” to North African Cookery – being worth, by the way, the price of the book – Haroutunian recounts the history of the Meghrib, or “lands of the far West.” One telling statement is of great interest: “It was not surprising that many Arabs and Berbers were induced to emigrate to Spain where there was peace and prosperity,” for at the time, after the deaths of the Idrisids, various groups began jousting for power.

I bought the book without even opening it. Back at my house in Rabat’s Souissi suburb where many expats lived, I turned to the index. I didn’t find the recipe I sought. But I did find hints of what I wanted to find in the meatball recipes that Haroutunian did include: cinnamon.

Cinnamon. That’s the point of this short treatise on taste memory. At the time, I’d lived in Morocco for almost a year and my favorite dish over all the glories of Moroccan cooking was Kefta Mkaouara (Meatball, Tomato, and Egg Tagine), as Paula Wolfert transliterated the recipe title in her 1973 Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. Robert Carrier also included a version in his Taste of Morocco (1987), one of two Moroccan cookbooks I owned at the time, the other being Wolfert’s, of course.

Often overlooked, one aspect of spicing in cooking relates to ancient ideas about cooking and health intertwined. Nawal Nasrallah’s Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook makes this point abundantly clear. [Note that cinnamon is referred to there as “cassia.”]  Much medieval Arab humoral theory found a basis in Greek humoral theory, which in turn appears to bear a resemblance to Ayurvedic theory. But Richard Tapper suggests, in his article “Drinking in the Middle East,” [Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, ed. by Zubaida and Tapper, 1994, p. 221] that “the origins of some aspects of this tradition are Greek/Hellenic, but the cosmology and symbolism of the classical tradition were modified by Islamic scientists, philosophers and theologians from the earliest period of Islam.” Tapper then goes on to define, quite simply – as he says – what is meant by the humoral system: four elements (fire, air, water, and earth) and qualities linked with them (hot or cold, and moist or dry). Four humors comprise the human body: blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile, all which result from digestion and prove crucial for the smooth running of the body. Cooks and physicians needed to weigh all these factors when combining foods for meals to maintain optimum health and the treatment of diseases. Knowing that these ideas lie behind the frameworks of medieval cookbooks forces us to look at recipes in a different light.

So where does cinnamon come into play here, it being a good example, considered as it was to be a “hot” spice. One of the very first recipes in The Book of Sent Soví, a medieval Catalan cookbook, requires the cook to add cinnamon, a lot of cinnamon, saying “En aquesta sosenga deu haver més canyella que altra salsa … (In this sauce there should be more cinnamon than any other spice …). This reliance on large amounts of cinnamon occurs time and again

It’s all very complicated, and far-reaching, these hints about cinnamon and spicing and humoral theory. French historian Bruno Laurioux believes that each and every spice used in medieval cuisine first entered the pantry because of its medicinal properties.

Meatball stew with cinnamon
Boles de Picolat (Credit: C. Bertelsen)

Imagine my surprise when I found the recipe for Boles de Picolat (French Catalan meatballs with Green Olives) in Colman Andrews’s Catalan Cuisine (1988):

½ pound lean ground beef
1 pound mild Italian sausage, casings removed, crumbled
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup parsley, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 small dried sweet pepper (ancho type), soaked in water for 1 hour, stemmed, seeded and chopped (I used ½ t. ground piment de esplette)
1 ½ tablespoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
1 ½ cups green olives, rinsed and pitted

Combine beef, sausage, garlic, eggs and parsley in a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Blend mixture thoroughly with your hands, then form into small meatballs, about 1-11/2 inches in diameter. Dust meatballs with flour and brown in small amount of oil in a Dutch oven. Remove meatballs from pan and set aside, then cook onion in same oil over low heat until soft, adding more oil if necessary. Sprinkle about 3 tablespoons of flour over onions, stir in well, then add tomato, pepper, cinnamon, paprika and 11/2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then add meatballs and olives and lower the heat. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes or until the sauce thickens. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Note: Use the best green olives you can find since their flavor will permeate the sauce.

I balked at first at the amount of cinnamon in this recipe, but it melded well with the sauce. Utterly divine, to be honest!

The question I asked myself, how did it happen that a recipe for meatballs (kefta) so heavily spiced happened to be found in the French part of Catalan country? The Arabs left Catalonia (and at that time Catalonia included what are now parts of France) in 801, ninety years after the Muslim conquest of Spain in 711. Signs of Moorish architecture tend not be very prominent in Catalonia, as opposed to the rest of Spain. What culinary influences remained there after a rule of only ninety years?

And another question: What if much of the cooking we’re looking at historically evolved more because of humoral beliefs than because of access to or trading of common ingredients?

That, dear reader, is the question, one worth pursuing for a while longer. Especially since the British, and other Europeans who came to the New World still adhered to vestiges of humoral theory.

Humoral properties
Cassia/Cinnamon, page from Caliph’s Kitchen (Credit: C. Bertelsen)

 Look for “A Hastiness of Cooks”: A Practical Handbook
for Use in Deciphering the Mysteries
of Historic Recipes and Cookbooks,
For Living-History Reenactors,
Historians, Writers, Chefs,
and, of Course, Cooks – soon on Amazon!


© 2019 C. Bertelsen

3 thoughts on “In the Scent of Cinnamon, a Whiff of Medieval Humoral Theory

  1. Thank you Cynthia! I love kefta with meatballs.. I ate it all the while growing up in Casablanca.. Cheap, flavorful, and like most Moroccan dishes, it feeds the multitudes.. A pinch of cinnamon is the secret of a good kefta. As are the herbs.
    I will be in Rabat in 2 weeks. I don’t know if the English bookstore is still open. I’ll find out! My father was an habitue of that store..

    Can’t wait to see your book.

    Kitty Morse

  2. “French historian Bruno Laurioux believes that each and every spice used in medieval cuisine first entered the pantry because of its medicinal properties.”
    For the past many months I’ve been participating in herb classes with a local herbalist, time and time again it becomes apparent that food is medicine. I wonder if many of our foods and flavorings joined us because they have ( or were thought to have ) medicinal properties. The classic chicken soup for example.

    Wonderful article! When is your book available?

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