The Mortar and Pestle

Good cooks and herbalists treasure—and use—a tool that’s been around for millenia.

| April/May 2001

Why should every good cook—and everyone who loves herbs—own and use at least one mortar and pestle? For history: the ceremony of using ancient tools, the joy of knowing the rhythm of how they work. For celebration: food feeds both body and soul, and the act of preparing it should be a pleasure, not a chore. And finally, for quality: there is a depth of flavor to spices and fresh herbs prepared this way that you just can’t get from a food processor.

When I eat, I want to be nourished, but it’s really depth and complexity of flavor that I seek most. I get it by preparing good quality, fresh foods, herbs, and spices simply. As a cook and an herbalist, I find that the mortar and pestle, along with my knives, my mezzaluna, and my wooden cutting board, are my most-used kitchen accessories.

Mortars and pestles for crushing and blending seeds, roots, herbs, and other foods probably date back to prehistory, although information on their origins is hard to find. It’s only logical that early man and woman picked up the nearest rock and used it to crack open the nuts they gathered. Eventually they found similar tools to grind seed or grain into a powder, so that they could mix it with water to form a gruel and grind herbs and roots to flavor it.

Evidence of mortars and pestles as they exist today dates to around 1000 b.c. They were essential tools for preparing food and medicines, used the same way then as they are today in kitchens and chemical laboratories.

My own search for information on mortars and pestles started at the library and went from there to the Internet. At first, I had difficulty finding information because I approached the subject as a cook; my own interest in this herbalist’s tool is its culinary use. But once I began searching from the pharmaceutical angle, my quest was rewarded.

I found all types of mortars and pestles for sale, private collections on display, and even instructions for how to make one yourself on a woodturning lathe. I have included some of these sources at the end of this article so that you can enjoy them as well. (Click here for resources.)

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