In recent years, almond milk has been touted as the future of non-dairy delicacies. It’s become a staple for lactose-intolerants and coffee shops alike. Yet almond milk’s popularity today pales in comparison to the high and late Middle Ages, when the upper class went nuts for it.
Almonds have been central to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines as far back as the Roman era, yet almond milk is likely a religiously-motivated, European innovation. The first mention of almond milk appears in a medical context in 12th century Salerno, but it quickly spread from the Mediterranean as far as Germany, England, and Denmark. During Lent, European Christians were barred from consuming milk, as well as eggs and meat. So they needed a substitute.
While making almond milk is straightforward, it involved a considerable amount of labor. First, cooks ground up a generous number of almonds and steeped them in hot water. Then, they strained the mixture through a fine mesh or cheesecloth. The resulting mixture—fairly thick, and not chunky or textured at all—became an ideal thickener for a dish.
Animal milks were typically destined for cheese and butter production, not drinking, thanks to a lack of refrigeration. One could make a faux butter by combining almond milk, salt, sugar, and vinegar and straining the result, even if it sounds like a far cry from today’s almond butter (or real butter). Some uses go further afield. In C.M. Woolgar’s The Senses in Late Medieval England, the author tells us that “Ersatz eggs appeared in Lent … made of almond milk, part colored yellow with saffron,” simulating the yolk.
But the sheer number of recipes from the Middle Ages that use almond milk, particularly those that combine it with (decidedly un-Lenten) meat, makes it clear that chefs came to regard it as a staple instead of just an alternative ingredient. Almonds turn up everywhere; in the first extant German cookbook, Das Buch von Guter Spise, dating to around 1350, almost a quarter of the recipes call for it.
Almond milk was an essential component in de rigeur dishes such as blancmange, a menu item popular all over Europe. To make it, chefs poached and shredded a chicken (white meat only, please, at least in some recipes) or pike into very small pieces before boiling it together with rice, sugar, salt, and almond milk. While the name “blancmange” suggests the dish should be white, those with a hankering for an almond-flavored purple rice pudding could add violets to the mix, as one German recipe called for. Medieval chefs were fond of coloring their dishes, so almond milk’s blank-white canvas became an ideal outlet for this self-expression.
Almond milk appeared in more overtly sweet dishes, too. A strawberry pudding could be made by soaking strawberries in wine, then grinding the mixture together with almond milk, sugar, and an assortment of spices, before boiling it all to thicken it.
Recipes featuring almond milk can be found from all over Europe, not just areas where almonds grew. Yet these dishes were typically reserved for those who could read cookbooks, and those who could afford them. In relation to a day’s wages, a pound of almonds in 15th century London cost more than a pint of honey and three times that of a pint of butter. By then it had become accessible to the well-off, not just the nobility. Describing the diet of a pair of priests in 15th century Dorset in her book Food in Medieval Times, Professor Melitta Weiss Adamson, of the University of Western Ontario, writes that “almond milk must have played a significant role in their diet judging from the quantities of almonds bought.” She calls the late Medieval world’s appetite for almond milk not just a “love,” but an “addiction.”
Almonds, and almond milk, did retain an exotic connotation for many people in northern Europe. According to Adamson, any mention of “roses, sugar, almonds, or almond milk” in cookbooks likely earned a dish a “Greek or Arab” label in 14th century Germany. For instance, the beef stew known as Bruet of Sarcynesse, or “Saracen Stew,” as translated in Sharon Butler and Constance B. Hieatt’s Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks, owed its name to a generous use of spices, sugar, and almond milk.
For the less well-off, falling ill could give one the chance to indulge in the aristocratic delights of almond milk. “Rice and almond milk were not only expensive foodstuffs for the upper classes, but also standard ingredients in dishes for the sick,” writes Adamson, citing the example of the blessed (though not sainted) 13th century Italian Benvenuta Boiani, who enjoyed rice cooked in almond milk during her recuperation after years of illness. It explains why blancmange often appeared in collections of recipes for the afflicted, too. (It was common practice at the time for cookbooks to highlight dishes suitable for the sick.)
Medieval doctors would agree with their modern descendants that almonds were nutritious, but felt they were hard to digest. In contrast, almond milk was easier on an invalid’s system. Another long-lasting theory about almonds is the idea that they feed your head. “Almonds were regarded as good for the brain, especially the brains of students, in the medical literature,” says Adamson. “So nuts as brain food is a very old concept. The medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen also says that almonds are good for a tired brain, and for headaches. This may explain why a 16th-century doctor claims almonds are good for hangovers.” For a long time, the almond has been a little nut that’s provoked great expectations.
Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.
Sign up for our email, delivered twice a week.