Verona, Italy, the 1980s: in a small, family-owned coffee laboratory, theGiamaica, whose roasting and grinding machines date back to the 1950s, a young Gianni Frasi was dedicating his heart and soul to the importation of coffee and perfecting its roasting process. One day, going through a rusty trunk, he found an old shipping invoice listing a delivery of coffee...and pepper. That’s when he realized that at one time, these two goods often travelled together and that both of them used to be sold in his family’s shop. He then remembered that his grandmother used to say, «Pepper? The kind from Sarawak is the best.»
In 2004, Gianni decided to take off for a trip, bringing along his friend, Celso Fadelli, as his “nose”. The destination: the capital of Malaysia, Kuching. The objective: to meet the city’s pepper producers.
It’s astounding that 730 years after Marco Polo left Venice for his voyage in the East – which eventually opened Europe to “exotic” lands and products , a journey that he memorably described in his book, The Million – once again, two Italians from the Veneto region (Verona is just 124 km from Venice), rediscovered the ancient Spice Road with a similar idea in mind…
Even before Marco Polo got there in the 13th Century, the legendary "Spice Road” that connected the Mediterranean to the Middle East and India, was frequently travelled by Arab and Romans who sought out riches in the lucrative spice trade.
Pepper in particular was used as currency and its value came to exceed even that of gold. Most likely first cultivated 2,500 years ago along the Indian coast of Malabar, what today is the state of Kerala, pepper reached its peak price around 1500. It was at that time that the Italian maritime Republics, (and especially Venice) had the monopoly on its trade. Documents from that era show that with three kilos of pepper, one could buy a palazzo on the Grand Canal. It comes as no surprise, then, that Portugal fought so hard to surpass Venice by seeking an alternative route to India (and with Vasco de Gama, managed to do it). Nor is it any wonder that pepper was often counterfeited with juniper berries, or that merchants often slipped in grains of lead to increase the load’s weight.
None of these facts and anecdotes escaped the notice of Gianni Frasi, who began his endeavour by questioning the quality of the pepper produced in Malaysia. When he, along with Celso Fadelli, went to Sarawak to get familiar with the different varieties of pepper and their harvesting and production processes, the cultivators were offended that they didn’t immediately begin talking about orders and profits. They were also defensive towards the two Italians who claimed that many kinds of their peppers’ aromas had been lost or changed due to mistakes like washing the berries with dirty water or drying them on filthy sacks of jute. Gianni Frasi had the nerve to criticise techniques that had been passed on over centuries and that nobody had thought to contest before.
At the beginning, the Malaysian producers dismissed Frasi’s concerns with an offhand, «pepper is pepper». But there was one person who listened carefully – a certain Mr. Siew with whom Frasi decided to create the brand "Maricha" (which means “pepper” in Sanskrit), in the aim of adding prestige and exposure to the Sarawak variety of pepper, which is considered among the best in the world. «We gave pepper back its dignity», says the Veronese. And Mr. Siew agrees: «Mr. Frasi brought the pepper devolution to Sarawek.»
Today Gianni Frasi – a visionary who reads the works of Rène Guènon and cultivates an interest in esoteric philosophy, who has made a religion of coffee and pepper – could be considered one of the world’s leading experts on these two goods.
Behind each grain of his pepper, there’s an almost legendary story. One of his latest discoveries is the Semongok Perak variety, gathered in the jungle gardens on the banks of the Ulu Julau river in Sarawak. Frasi used them to created a special blend, together with other two varieties of pepper that grow spontaneously along this body of water – the only means of reaching civilization, which is a ten-hour boat ride away.
We’re placing our bets that pepper will soon become the determining ingredient for foodies, wherever they may live or eat.
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