From Ancient Apothecaries to Modern Food: A Journey Through History

Apothecaries were a big part of the grocery business, their shelves and cabinets filled with herbs, spices and more. Discover how this relationship started.
Author Headshot
Olivia Higgs
Dec 2
3 mins
Dec 2
3 mins

The Relationship Between Food and Apothecaries

Once upon a time, apothecaries were a part of the grocery business. Their shelves and cabinets would be filled with herbs, spices, ceramic jars, and glass vials. The apothecaries would closely guard their secret recipes for their cures - it was a competitive business after all. No matter your sickness, there was bound to be a herbal remedy often in the form of wines, syrups, and cordials. They would import their spices from far and wide and for the less exotic ingredients, some of the apothecaries would grow the herbs and plants themselves in their gardens. Some of these herbs and spices were turned into medicines and the rest were distributed or sold direct to customers for cooking with. This is why in England, apothecaries were regulated by the Company of Grocers but in 1617 they broke away and formed their own guild, the Society of Apothecaries, giving them a lot more freedom to sell whatever they wanted.

Illustration of an old apothecary, with a line of sick customers waiting for quack remedies.
Old Apothecary from The Wellcome Collection

‎The Rise of Quack Medicine

With their newfound freedom, came the rise of quack medicine.

Quack medicine: The word 'quack' comes from the Dutch word 'quacksalver', which is an unqualified person who sells dubious remedies and medical cures which are not effective.

Some of these herbal remedies did have healing properties and helped the sick, others were less helpful. At the time there was a fascination with the supernatural and superstitious. As a result, it wasn't unusual to find tonic peddlers and unlicensed chemists selling potions containing unusual ingredients like 'eye of newt' or 'flesh of a viper'. During pandemics and the plague years, quack doctors were at their busiest, largely preying on the poor. They'd make promises their elixirs would cure illness or prolong your life.

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The Great Plague of London

From 1665 to 1666, London lost around 15% of its population (68,596 deaths according to official numbers) to the plague but the reality was much higher (around 100,000 deaths). The disease spread through rats who were attracted by the city streets covered in rubbish and waste, particularly in poorer areas. At the time the apothecaries still practiced medieval medicine, and one of the major theories behind the plague was the "corruption of humors". It was believed the body was made up of four humors - blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Whenever there was an imbalance of one of these humors, it indicated disease. Many of the remedies at the time centered around bringing the body back to its natural equilibrium so it wasn't uncommon to be treated with leeches for draining "excessive" blood or herbal blends for inducing vomiting or sweating.

Apothecaries reached their peak in the 1700s and when the Industrial Revolution began in the eighteenth century we started to see a wave of new chemists and druggists. Eventually paving the way for modern medicine.

The Modern Kitchen Apothecary

Today the mystique of apothecaries continues to capture the imagination of people. Bartenders are embracing botanicals, and menu chalkboards are using lettering inspired by the labels and signage of old apothecaries. Chefs are also returning to more traditional roots with fermentation, preservation, and pickling and incorporating the rustic charm of flowers and plants in plating (which you can also learn to do on the Rassa Irish cooking program). Videos and pictures across social media are also evidence of this. Storing pantry spices and infused oils in dark green or amber vintage medicine bottles or doing your own drying of herbs and flowers at home for teas and cooking aromatics.

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