At the Irish medieval table, spices and wines were proof of status. They were essential to one’s standing in society – particularly since they had to be imported. Wine arrived at the ports of the east and south-east of the country – Dublin, Drogheda, Waterford, Wexford, and New Ross – before being transported throughout the country.
Although the importation of medieval wine is strongly associated with the east and south-east coast, in 1475 two Portuguese ships are known to have delivered wine to the port of Limerick. Wine was also delivered to Galway. It was brought to Ireland by Irish, as well as foreign, ships.
The wine trade was based on the exchange of commodities. Irish wheat and hides were in demand in France, so Irish ships would carry them there, and return with tuns of wine.
Taxes, known as the “prise of wine” had to be paid at the arrival port: one tun of wine for any ship delivering less than 20 tuns of wine, two tuns for those in excess of 20 tuns. If a ship was delivering to more than one port, the prise was deducted at the first port.
Wine was consumed in its raw state or sometimes used to make spiced wine. Like the warm mulled wine we sometimes drink today, this was prepared with spices. But in contrast to mulled wine, it was prepared and served cold.
An important meal often ended with spiced wine and wafers. Spiced wines were thought to have medicinal properties too, and help with digestion. A daily portion of three pieces of bread soaked in five spoonfuls of spiced wine was thought to warm the stomachs and clear the heads of old men.
There were some guidelines about consuming wine, including this from the fifteenth-century traveller, physician and writer Andrew Boorde’s book A Compendious Regiment, or A Dietary of Health:
“Wyne must not be to newe nor to old … it is good to alaye it with water … it is not good to drynke nother wyne nor ale before a man doth eate womewhat … there is no wyne good for children and maydens …”
The main spices are cinnamon, ginger, clove, and galangal, but other spices such as grains of paradise or long pepper were also used. Spices and sugar were added to the wine, which was then allowed to stand for up to two days, to allow the flavour to develop.
This wine was then filtered through conical bags made of very finely woven linen, called bolting cloth. This cloth was also used to sieve flour to the finest dust-like particles, for use in the best breads. This fine sieving removed traces of the spices used to flavour the wine, and the residue was then used in sauces.
- 1 litre/1¾ pts red wine
- 150g/6 oz. sugar
- 1 rounded tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 rounded tsp. ground ginger
- 1 rounded tsp. ground galangal (or a small piece of fresh galangal, peeled and finely grated)
Mix the sugar and spices together in a large bowl. Gradually stir in the wine, and mix well together. Allow the mixture to stand for two days, stirring occasionally. Strain the liquid through a double layer of cheesecloth or muslin. Repeat this procedure until there is no longer a residue left on the cloth. Store in a sealed container in the fridge. Serve at room temperature.