Edible histories: pepper

Categories: History of food

From pharaoh's nostrils to imperial conflict, via Visigoths and tax collectors: the history of pepper

Words: Mark Riddaway 

As Bede, the great Anglo Saxon scholar and cleric, lay stricken on his deathbed in May 735, he gathered his fellow monks together so that a small box of his most precious belongings could be opened up and its contents distributed among them.

His was a life of great simplicity and piety, but over the years he had managed to collect a few items of value—“such gifts as God has given me”—worthy of bequeathing to his friends. These included incense, fine cloth—and pepper.

These days, leaving a loved one some peppercorns as an inheritance would be viewed as a massive post-mortem slap in the chops, not an act of great kindness. But until relatively recently, pepper was not the prolific, prosaic seasoning of today, found on every table—instead it was an expensive luxury, prized for its ability to make even the blandest of dishes eminently more palatable.

Pungent heat
India was the birthplace of two distinct species of this versatile seasoning: long pepper (Piper longum) and black pepper (Piper nigrum). Long pepper—the hotter, more ancient and, at some points in history, more valued of the two—fell rapidly from favour after the 16th century, when the arrival of chillies from the New World allowed its pungent heat to be replicated for a fraction of the price.

Pepper was certainly known by the ancient Egyptians—black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, part of the mummification ritual after his death in 1213BC—and both forms of pepper were regularly imported by the Greeks.

In 310BC, the Athenian botanist Theophrastus wrote that “pepper is a fruit, and is of two kinds: one round like bitter vetch, with a shell and flesh like bay berries, reddish; the long kind with poppy-like seeds, much stronger than the other”.

Major trading commodity
It was the Romans who helped turn pepper into a major trading commodity after finding a way across the Indian Ocean from their Red Sea ports. One Sanskrit source tells of Roman traders arriving at the port town of Mazuris in Kerala.

“The beautifully built ships of the Yavanas [foreigners] came with gold and returned with pepper, and Muziris resounded with the noise”. The spice’s pungent notes became an essential ingredient in the kitchens of Rome’s wealthier citizens, and was even used to liven up mediocre wine.

Not everyone approved. Pliny the Elder, writing with the kind of self-righteous bombast displayed by mid-market newspaper columnists railing against reality TV, was not a fan. “Why do we like it so much?” he boomed.

Gold and silver
“Some foods attract by sweetness, some by their appearance, but neither the pod nor the berry of pepper has anything to be said for it. We only want it for its bite—and we will go to India to get it!” The world was clearly going to hell in a handcart. “Pepper and ginger both grow wild in their native countries, and yet we value them like gold and silver!”

Alaric, the Visigoth king, was somewhat more of a devotee. When he besieged Rome for the first time in 408AD (he enjoyed besieging Rome so much he made it something of an annual event), he demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper as part of his vast ransom for not massacring its citizens. The world would be a much better place today if all wars could be prevented by the orderly handover of seasonings.

Being small, transportable, easily preserved, high in demand and hard to get hold of, peppercorns held their value extremely well, making them an important economic asset. Examples abound throughout history of pepper acting as a proxy for cash.

A heavy toll
In 10th century England, during the reign of Ethelred the Unready, German traders at Billingsgate were charged a heavy toll—every Christmas and Easter they would be tapped up for “two white loaves, and one brown, and 10 pounds of pepper, and gloves for five men, and two horse-tanks full of vinegar”. For hundreds of years, pepper remained an important commodity and unit of exchange. Gloves, less so.

Italy, in particular Venice and Genoa, remained at the heart of the pepper trade throughout the Middle Ages. It was a complex and expensive business, over land and sea, by boat, camel and horse, with multiple Asian and Arabian middle men taking their cut along the way.

Then, in 1498, the Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama arrived in India in search of “Christians and spices”, having found his way around the Cape of Good Hope, and the game changed. By opening up a shipping route from Europe to Asia, Da Gama turned the pepper trade into a long-running battle between the world’s great maritime nations, crippling the Italian city states in the process.

The British Empire
First Portugal, then Holland, then Britain took turns to wrest control, often violently, of the vital pepper harvests of India, Java and Sumatra. It was in the 19th century, with the British Empire dominating global trade, that increased production levels and an ever-growing merchant navy combined to drive prices rapidly downwards, turning pepper into the everyday seasoning we know today.

These days, the world’s main pepper producers—Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia and Sri Lanka—are beholden to no great imperial overlords. Instead they cooperate under the auspices of the International Pepper Community, ensuring that production is plentiful and prices are low. Quality varies, from the cheap, pungent dust found in greasy cafe shakers to the plump, symphonic peppercorns sold at Spice Mountain.

A medieval English proverb reads: “Snow is white and lieth in the dike, and every man lets it lie. Pepper is black and hath a good smack and every man doth it buy”. That smack remains at the heart of our cuisine, and we’re not going to stop buying it any time soon.