Today it might seem a little odd to hear someone order their latte with real milk instead of almond milk, such is the popularity of this drink today, yet the real craze for almond milk actually began in the Middle Ages when the elite classes couldn’t get enough of it.
While the propensity to consume almond milk now comes mainly from vegans or the lactose-intolerant, these were not the prime reasons for its use during the medieval era. Back then, the creation of almond milk really came about because of religious considerations that were prevalent at the time.
Almonds have a long history, dating back to at least 4000 BCE, when those living around the Mediterranean Sea grew almond trees so that they could garnish their food with these nuts. Even Hebrew literature from around 2000 BCE specifically talks about almonds. The Bible, too, also mentions almonds in Genesis 43:11 when describing a fierce famine occurring in Canaan.
“Take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man a present, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds.”
When it came time to bury King Tutankhamen in 1324 BCE, he was buried with almonds to take with him on his journey after death, and both Arabs and Persians were skilled in the art of using crushed almonds and mixing it with some water as something cooling to drink.
The first specific mention of almond milk in particular came about during the 12th century in medical texts, but as more people traveled during the Middle Ages they developed a taste for almonds, and the nut swiftly moved from the Mediterranean to Europe. This was extremely helpful, as during Lent, when the faithfully devout were strictly forbidden from consuming milk, meat, or eggs, the good Catholics needed something that would replace their milk products, and a love of almond milk was instantly born.
Making almond milk is a relatively easy task to accomplish, but there is quite a lot of work involved in it, according to Atlas Obscura. Almonds must first be completely ground and then soaked in hot water, with this mixture then strained through a cheesecloth, which would probably have been of a much different kind during the medieval era. The thick mixture left behind from the almond concoction can then be watered down and turned into a milk-like drink, but it can also be used for other things too, like the creation of butter without the use of animal products.
In the book The Senses in Late Medieval England, C.M. Woolgar described how a mock butter was once created from almonds during Lent, with saffron added to create the look of egg yolk.
“Ersatz eggs appeared in Lent made of almond milk, part colored yellow with saffron.”
However, while using animal substitutes during Lent may have originally started the fashion for consuming almond milk during the Middle Ages, it soon became readily apparent that the drink was here to stay when you look at how many recipes of the day used almond milk throughout the rest of the year and apart from Lent. For instance, one of the first German cookbooks to be written in 1350 had so many recipes using this drink that they took up a quarter of the book.
Wildly popular foods like blancmange all called for almond milk in them,as well as recipes for things like strawberry pudding, and Professor Melitta Weiss Adamson has written that during the medieval era, almond milk was almost an “addiction,” noting that “Almond milk must have played a significant role in their diet judging from the quantities of almonds bought.”
The cost of almonds was such that unless you were extremely wealthy, perhaps one of the only chances you would have of consuming this drink would be if you were to have fallen ill at the time, as Professor Adamson explained.
“Rice and almond milk were not only expensive foodstuffs for the upper classes, but also standard ingredients in dishes for the sick.”
With the advent of mass production, almond milk is no longer a drink for just the very wealthy and its popularity today may be heading very close to what it once was during the Middle Ages.