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Pepper is, and always has been, the world’s most-traded spice, from antiquity to the present day. Pepper is so ubiquitous that we tend not to even think of it as a spice. Salt and pepper is added to just about every savory dish (and some sweet), but salt is considered a condiment, not a spice. Pepper, on the other hand, is the king of spices, found everywhere but rarely thought of in any detail. Homage should be paid to this mighty spice that inhabits every cuisine (can we think of one that never features pepper?), for it has a far more fascinating history than you might imagine.
Black pepper (Piper nigrum) comes from a flowering vine, and what we think of as peppercorns are actually pieces of fruit that have been dried and can be crushed in our tabletop pepper mills. Different colored peppers are actually variously-aged peppercorns from the same plant: black pepper is the boiled then dried “fruit” of the pepper plant before it has been given a chance to ripen; green pepper is the uncooked, dried unripe fruit, and white pepper represents the ripe seeds of the fruit (with the darker skin removed). To impress your friends, you can mention that pepper is produced from the drupes of the pepper plant. No, I’d never hear of “drupes” either before researching this article, but they apparently are the proper word to describe any stone fruit, fleshy on the outside with a hard pit in the center (offer to bake your friends a drupe pie, and see what they say). Black pepper is indigenous to southern India, though these days a third of the world’s pepper comes from Vietnam, by far the largest producer.
What makes pepper “peppery’ is a chemical called piperine, which derives from the Latin, piper, itself a derivative of the ancient Dravidian word, pippali. Pepper has the distinction of being the only spice that is used in a figurative sense. Since the 1840s, someone with “pepper” was said to be spirited and vivacious (you never hear of someone with “saffron” or “turmeric”).
At some point when I was younger, I recall learning that pepper was originally used as a spice to preserve and mask bad tastes, rather than enhance good ones. Prior to refrigeration, mildly (or very) spoiled meat could have its off flavor masked by the application of sufficient pepper. This may have made it palatable (although your intestinal tract might not have been too happy the next morning). The latest research, however, concludes that this theory cannot be backed up, as there are no extant sources that confirm it. The latest scholarship argues that pepper was always a luxury item in short supply, and indeed used as a flavoring agent. It was of sufficient value that some cultures used it, like salt, as currency.
It didn’t only preserve food: black peppercorns were found inside the nostrils of the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses II, and were part of the mummification ritual back around 1200 BC. The spice made its way from India to Greece and was recorded as a luxury item in the 4th century BC. Pliny the Elder, that wondrous fountain of esoteric knowledge of the ancient Roman world, gives us the price of long pepper (more common in the ancient world, and spicier than black pepper) cost “fifteen denarii per pound, while that of white pepper is seven, and of black, four.” He goes on to complain that the pepper trade is a vast expense for Rome, in the pockets of India: “There is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces…It is quite surprising that the use of pepper has come so much into fashion, seeing that…pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation…its only desirable quality being a certain pungency…Who, I wonder, was the first to make trial of it as an article of food?” It’s a fair question, although perhaps its “pungency” was not the negative Pliny seemed to feel it was—in fact, the ancient world developed quite a taste for it. It is featured in Apicius’ ancient Roman cookbook circa the 1st century AD. It was always costly (in Early Modern Holland, the term peperduur arose, meaning “pepper expensive,” or very expensive).
When Alaric, King of the Visigoths, besieged Rome, among his demands to release the city was 3000 pounds of pepper. And lest we think that pepper is not important beyond culinary history, the discovery of the New World was partly down to looking for cheaper pepper. Through the Renaissance, Italy had a monopoly on the European pepper trade and Vasco da Gama’s 1498 voyage to India was an attempt by Portugal to cut out the middle man and open an oceanic spice trade route for themselves.
To finish our surprisingly potent history of pepper, we end with a riddle penned by Saint Aldhelm, the 7th century Bishop of Sherborne in England.
I am black on the outside, clad in a wrinkled cover,
Yet within I bear a burning marrow.
I season delicacies, the banquets of kings, and the luxuries of the table,
Both the sauces and the tenderized meats of the kitchen.
But you will find in me no quality of any worth,
Unless your bowels have been rattled by my gleaming marrow.
You can probably guess the solution to the riddle. When it comes to cooking, I’m all for this “bowel- rattling” powerful spice.