In the East of England, just 43 miles from the hustle and bustle of London, lies a quiet market town known as Saffron Walden. To walk its streets today and take in the quintessentially English countryside and medieval stone architecture, one might never guess at the exotic origins from which it derives its name – nor the roots that it shares with the rather more colorful region of Sicily.
Both the English town and the Italian island are steeped in Arabic influences – remnants of a rich history from which an aromatic aftertaste still lingers in today's European cuisine. Look between the lines of any quaint café menu and you’ll discover a story of intertwining cultures and kitchens.
In the Beginning: An Aperitif
Flavors such as saffron and rose water seem to be tastes as old as time, so it can be difficult to discern the origins of such ingredients in European cuisine. One of the earliest recorded instances of Arabic culture influencing European is the Greek invasion of the Arabian Peninsula under the rule of Alexander the Great. Following his conquering of Egypt, King Alexander instigated one of the earliest spice trading centers, introducing new seasonings to Greek dishes.
The influence of Arabic cuisine continued to travel. When Arabic armies conquered Sicily during the 9th Century, it marked the beginning of a new palate as well as new leaders. Citrus fruits, such as oranges and lemons, were introduced to the Mediterranean. Rice and durum wheat from North Africa appeared in kitchens – soon to be transformed into the now famously Italian risotto and pasta.
Typically Greek and Roman ingredients began to make way to new flavors from foreign lands. Honey, once favored by those with a sweet tooth, gave way to sugar – a delicacy first sourced overseas. We can see the influence begin to appear in the cookery manuscripts of the time; a 15th Century recipe from England specifically calls for refined sugar instead of brown. This was the preferred choice in Arabia, where the most refined varietals were reserved for royalty.
From here, desserts only developed. Sweets we now think of as typically European have their roots in Arabic foods. For example, the gelato for which Italy is renowned almost certainly originated from ice-making techniques developed in Arabic kitchens.
Savory ingredients also found their way into boiling pots across the continent. Pomegranates appeared, sprinkled throughout meals in the Middle Eastern fashion. Dishes were infused with fragrant rose water and citrus juices. Almonds, an ingredient first introduced by Romans, were now prepared in the Arabic way – ground or in almond milk (then known as mylke of almaundys). Saffron – now world-famous for its staining properties – travelled from Africa through continental Europe all the way to the UK. By the 14th Century it was grown in the market town of Walden – later renamed to reflect its trade.
Of course, these new ingredients represented a drastic change in the typical European diet, and one that a lot of people found hard to swallow. Many felt that these new seasonings represented at best an unnecessary indulgence, and at worst the spoiling of good meats. While this outlook was unsurprising, it was also unsustainable, with Arabic culture continuing to grow in influence across the European continent. These new tastes slowly began to gain favor, with their popularity edged along by an unlikely ally: religion.
Taste of Paradise
In the 12th Century, the Quran was translated into Latin, helping to popularize Islam across Europe. With this movement came the widespread idea of pleasure in paradise.
The Christianity of the times depicted desire as a sin – the resistance of which would be rewarded by eternity in Heaven, a land without desire. In contrast, the Quran spoke of an afterlife in which all the heart’s desires are met, commanding its followers to “eat ye, and drink with hearty relish”.
This shifting perception of indulgence changed the way mealtimes were enjoyed across Europe. Essentiality gave way to occasion and food was infused with saffron for coloring and cinnamon for scent. Soon, added garnishes in European cuisine were to be marveled at rather than scorned.
Today’s Food Trends
Across Europe, our fascination with the dining experience only grows. As our diet develops, we find ourselves once again drawing on Arabic recipes for inspiration. Rising demand for vegan and gluten-free options has seen Middle Eastern staples such as hummus, falafel and pilaf appear on the menus of mainstream European restaurants.
The fusion of the two cooking styles has given way to a host of new soon-to-be classic recipes: a traditional English cottage pie made with lentils instead of beef; Swiss hot chocolates sprinkled with cinnamon; Italian pizzas topped with grilled halloumi. And so, too, has our style of eating been altered by these influences.
Meze meals – that is, small dishes shared among the table – made their way from Turkey to Greece, and have since appeared across the continent. In contrast to Spanish tapas, which typically precedes a meal, meze (or muqabbilat, if no alcohol is served) is a meal in and of itself, and one that puts the emphasis on the social aspect of eating. Today, it is not uncommon to find meze menus in Western restaurants, often featuring a mixture of European cuisine and Middle Eastern dishes.
With the Arabic influence evident in everything from premium ingredients like saffron to everyday staples like durum wheat, it seems there is little in European cuisine that can’t be traced back to Middle Eastern roots. Kitchens across the continent have merchant traders, conquerors and even religious texts to thank for sugar, spice and all things nice.