There is evidence that medieval Europeans were using almond milk even when they didn’t need to. They were drinking it, cooking with it, because of the taste and its long shelf life. Can’t blame them, can we? They were right about the taste for sure
When we hear the term Almond Milk, we think overpriced milk for rich folks. Dietitians and nutritionists continue to recommend this milk as a super healthy alternative for regular milk and most of us continue to wonder why they want us to spend so much money on milk. So, we were as surprised as a anybody else to learn that this is not a new thing. You see, almond milk was the smarter option during the Middle Ages in Europe and, much like today, the affluent classes loved it and couldn’t stop raving about it.
Long before the 21st century, when almond milk became a symbol of status and veganism (Hey, I’m not judging...too much!), people in the middle of the Middle Ages (1000CE-1300CE) had a bit of a love affair with almond milk. The reason? Fasting.
European people in that era were a bit more inclined towards religion than these days, and took their religious duties seriously. Many Europeans also took fasting equally seriously. And there was a fair bit of fasting throughout the year. For instance, during Lent, or on Fridays, or any other special days during the week, they’d abstain from animal products like meat, eggs, and milk. Interestingly, cow milk was considered a non-vegetarian animal product by the people of the Middle Ages. It depended on time, culture, and what part of the region one lived but there was frequent fasting nonetheless. Not unlike many Indians even today, who abstain from meat and alcohol on certain days of the week.
There was one loophole in that scheme of things: almond milk. Because, technically, it is not “milk” per se. Almond milk grew in popularity and usage because it wasn’t from animals, and was easier to preserve. Also, almonds didn’t require sustenance and care like cows did, which cost a lot of resources for the people of the Middle Ages. Almonds can be grown and just kept at home while cows require feeding, care, health checks etc. At a time when animal foods were frowned upon during the many fasts, it made more sense to use almonds to squeeze out milk.
Then they fell in love with it. The upper class and the aristocrats, that is. And, inevitably, as history demonstrates over and over, what the upper-class loves, the rest want. There is evidence that medieval Europeans were using almond milk even when they didn’t need to. They were drinking it, cooking with it, because of the taste and its long shelf life. Can’t blame them, can we? They were right about the taste for sure. The almond milk we buy today is quite similar to the almond milk consumed by the people of the medieval era.
Almond milk is easy to make. You grind the nuts down to a powder, then steep them in (usually hot, but also cold) water for some time, then strain the powder using a cheesecloth or mesh. The remaining liquid was surprisingly thick:the thing we know as almond milk. But this easy process also meant that even as the nobility loved almond milk, commoners had access to it too. When it came to almond milk, everyone was invited to the party, so to speak. Almonds grew everywhere in Europe, even in Britain. Almonds could be stored, and carried long distances. Hence, the milk from almonds was less “perishable”, in relative terms, than cow milk pre-pasteurization. In comparison, due to lack of refrigeration, the best long-term scenario for animal milk was turning it into hard cheese or butter, or lugging your cow everywhere you went, which would have been a costly affair for anyone who wasn’t from a noble family. Yes, almond milk itself doesn’t stay fresh for too long, but as mentioned, almonds could be stored, and turned into milk as per demand, and whenever required.
It was also used as medicine. Physicians of the day noted that almonds were beneficial for health, but the milk was easier to ingest. Some people of that era also believed that almond milk was good for the brain.
They also innovated dishes. One English author noted that “Ersatz eggs appeared in Lent … made of almond milk, part colored yellow with saffron.” Yes, the “yellow with saffron” part was meant to simulate egg yolk. The medieval era saw an explosion of almond milk-based recipes that make it clear they were all in love with it. In the first known German cookbook, 1350CE’s Das Buch von Guter Spise, nearly 25 percent of the recipes use almond milk. Chefs used this milk in elaborate dishes, in puddings, in desserts etc. Professor Melitta Weiss Adamson, of the University of Western Ontario goes so far as to claim that the medieval era’s appetite for almond milk was mere love, but “addiction.”