Upon perusing several recipes to fuel my insatiable desire for making edible things in general, I came across an interesting feature in the Cinnamon Roll. Cinnamon rolls (Skillingsboller or Kanelbullar depending on where you’re from) are quite an interesting pastry, in the sense that they have an ingredient that is rarely used in any cuisine outside of India.
For those that are unaware, most Scandinavian cinnamon rolls don’t just have cinnamon in them, they often add powdered green cardamom for its unique fragrance. What we typically refer to as green Cardamom (taxonomically: Ellataria Genera), is a relative of the Ginger Root and part of the same wider taxonomic family. This is not to be confused with black cardamom which is a specific species in the Amomum genera that has a much smokier scent and flavour. Where black cardamom originates in Nepal and the highland regions of Northern India. Green Cardamom has a much more widespread origin, Ranging from Southern India to South East Asia (mostly Malaysia).
This raises the question: how did this small pod travel from the place that it was grown, all the way to the far frozen reaches of Scandinavia and when? Admittedly, the research on the movement of this spice through various trade routes is thin. Preambles to papers discussing the medical properties of Cardamom use history to provide a brief introduction to the paper, and as a result, not much attention is paid to the history itself. As of now, Swedes consumes 18 times more Cardamom than the average country in baked goods and stewed desserts.
As myths go, the most popular narrative on how cardamom travelled so far north was through Vikings that found it in the “Bazaars of Constantinople”. In terms of periodisation, this makes sense. Vikings were largely around during the 11th Century and the Byzantine Empire as the Eastern Fragment of the Roman Empire didn’t fall until 1453 to the Ottomans. However, this account has been dubbed “unlikely” by Daniel Serra in An Early Meal-A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey, where he noticed that many of the early recipes incorporating Cardamom were almost identical to “Moorish” recipes. If we assume that Cardamom was introduced during the same period but through this route, it would still make sense. The Mediterranean trade route originating from the end of the silk road at Constantinople and Tyre, bypassed the ports of Algerica (now Gibraltar) and Al-Lixbuna (Lisbon), two major cities in the Iberian Ummayad Caliphate that survived the Abbasid overthrow in 750AD. From there, the spice would have travelled upwards towards London and onwards through the Hanseatic Trade Network, into Scandinavia. This is corroborated by an archaeobotanical study by Alexandra Livarda, which examined samples of spices originating in tropical or subtropical environments that were present in Northwestern Europe during the Roman and Medieval Periods. In a table of data, there were 5 separate samples of Elettaria cardamoum (Green Cardamom) that was recovered. In a brief digression, this paper is an especially interesting one. Combining statistical archaeological methods with conventional historical inquiry.
With the question of how Cardamom reached the Scandinavian region answered, we can now move on to why as a spice, it is so widely used. The speculation that Serra asserts is that Scandinavia, being on the fringes of the European continent, “clung” to Medieval Cuisine much longer than the rest of the continent did. A critical analysis of this assertion would likely have to look at theories of social change and geography in the specific context of Northeastern Europe and ideas around cultural insularity and trade routes. This question of why a particular ingredient “sticks” to a specific food culture is a much more interesting one than how it got there. Perhaps with some more research, we’ll be able to understand the history of ho