Pepper: King of Spices

Pepper in the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, once the culmination of the Spice Route.

The recorded history of pepper goes back farther than that of any other spice, with Sanskrit texts testifying to its use by the peoples of India more than 4,000 years ago. The Aryans of the Ganges valley were the first to export wild pepper, but the spice appears not to have reached the Mediterranean until the 5th century B.C. It was the first Oriental spice to reach Europe, and it was an immediate hit.

Initially, in Greece, pepper was viewed as more medicinal than culinary. Plato wrote that pepper was “small in quantity but great in virtue.” But after the 5th century B.C., Athens in particular began to see the world’s first separation of lifestyle and diet along lines of economic differences. Suddenly, the upper classes of a prospering Athens wanted to be gourmets. (Sparta, though also powerful at this time, was still pursuing a lifestyle and cuisine that was, well, Spartan.) The new interest in fine dining led to a dramatically increased interest in pepper as a spice.

Rome’s love of all things Hellenistic extended to the Greek interest in pepper, and as soon as they had the money and trade connections, Romans were adding pepper to most of their dishes, even desserts. Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) expressed his astonishment over the speed with which pepper gained popularity in Rome, noting that it was “bought by weight like gold or silver.” (In fact, in the early days of pepper’s appearing in Rome, it could sell for what in today’s currency would be around $500 per pound.) Pepper was deemed to be one of the “five essential luxuries” that made life worth living—and were the basis of the empire’s foreign trade. (The other four were Chinese silk, German amber, African ivory, and Arabian incense.)

One of the main avenues for the spice trade was through the Red Sea into Egypt. After 80 B.C., Rome controlled the Egyptian port of Alexandria, which had been handed over to the Romans by Ptolemy XI. The Arab traders who transported the spices to Alexandria were eager to protect their monopoly, so they told outrageous stories about inaccessible regions, poisonous serpents, and winged guardians that made the acquisition of spices just too dangerous to think about. Not everyone was fooled; Pliny wrote that the tales were simply “invented for the purpose of enhancing the price of these commodities.”

The Romans began building their own ships to withstand the journey from Egypt to India. The trips were so long and so dangerous that this did not initially decrease the price of pepper. Then, in the middle of the first century A.D., Roman mariners discovered the monsoon winds. Using these winds, traders could sale to south India and back to Rome in less than a year. The pepper trade exploded. The empire established a trading colony in India, and Emperor Domitian built a special market, the horrea piperataria, to handle the demand in Rome.

The taste for pepper was not limited to the Classical world. Rome’s enemies also developed a passion for the pungent spice. When Alaric the Visigoth and his barbarian army appeared on Rome’s doorstep in A.D. 408, among their terms for not destroying the city was a demand for 3,000 pounds of pepper. Rome also kept Atilla the Hun at a safe distance by sending gifts of pepper and cinnamon.

During the early Middle Ages, pepper suffered a temporary setback, losing its primacy to other spices, particularly ginger. However, though it lost ground as a condiment, it remained a widely respected medicine, believed to be good for maintaining health, strengthening the stomach, curing chills, and even healing snake bites. (It is still highly regarded in India as an aid to digestion.) Then in the late Middle Ages, pepper again shot to the number one spot in the hearts and cook pots of Europe. As its value soared, it became the medium of international payments. Dowries were paid in pepper, even among royalty, and a serf in France could buy freedom for a pound of pepper. The English had a guild of Pepperers by 1180. Taxes and rent could be paid and land could be purchased with pepper. Soon, wealth was expressed in terms of how much pepper a person had. By the 1500s, pepper was virtually the only spice being used.

Venice, the renowned, water-bound city-state that was the commercial center for trade between Europe and the Middle East and Asia, became the focus of the pepper trade in the Middle Ages. With Europe consuming an average of 6.6 million pounds

Portrait of Vasco da Gama in a church in Kerala, India.

of pepper annually, and all of that pepper funneling through Venice, Venetian merchants became wealthy—too wealthy to stay unopposed for long. The Portuguese took over the trade as soon as soon as Vasco da Gama opened up the sea route to India (1497), and they prospered. The Dutch followed in 1522, establishing their own trade contacts and contracts along India’s spice coast. For a while, the competition between the Portuguese and Dutch drove prices down. Through treaties with Indian princes, by their own government’s edicts, and by force of arms, the Dutch in time succeeded in establishing something close to a monopoly, especially in northern Europe, and prices began to rise again. (Though Portugal lost its monopoly, it retained a substantial toehold in the trade. In fact, Goa, Portugal’s trading colony in India, remained a Portuguese possession until 1961—fourteen years after the rest of India gained independence from Great Britain.)

The Dutch made the East Indies (now Indonesia) their base of operations, because the islands were well located for trading with India and were a good staging point for the homeward journey. The Dutch East India Company (said to be the first company to issue shares) was formed a few years later. Then, in 1599, the Dutch raised the price of pepper from three shillings to eight shillings a pound, and a group of London merchants decided to form their own company—the British East India Company—to compete with the Dutch. And so began the British presence on the subcontinent.

The British—who, like the Venetians, Portuguese, and Dutch before them lived in a country that offered a great deal of coastline and therefore produced skilled boat builders and sailors—had no difficulty getting people to the subcontinent. They based their operations right where the spices were, in southern India. For many years, the British East India Company operated from a base in Madras (now Chennai) called Fort Saint George. In time, however, the desire of many Brits to escape poverty, persecution, or wars in England, combined with a dose of imperial spirit and increased trade opportunities, led to the company’s spreading across the subcontinent (with a bit of help from the government).

Like the Portuguese and Dutch, the Brits prospered. However, spice smugglers from North America made it difficult for the British and Dutch to maintain the stranglehold on the pepper trade that they might have hoped for. Then, by 1664, the French were in the game, too (calling their operation—what else?—the French East India Company). Competition brought prices down and increased the customer base.

By the time Britain’s revolting North American colonies had become a country, demand was still rising. With the creation of the clipper ship, the fastest vessel on the seas, Americans became major players in the pepper trade. Salem, Massachusetts, became the new Venice and in 1805, re-exported 7.5 million pounds of pepper. The first American millionaire, Elias Haskett Derby, made his fortune importing black pepper into the U.S., then used his wealth to endow Yale University. (Which seems particularly fitting, because Elihu Yale, for whom the university was named, made his own fortune in the spice trade, as an employee of the British East India Company and then as governor of Fort Saint George.)

Today, black pepper is the most widely used spice worldwide. More than 200 millions pounds are traded annually. Most pepper still comes from Asia, though Brazil has now entered the scene as a grower and supplier (and the comparatively bland pepper from Brazil is most often what one encounters when buying generic black pepper in the U.S.). Black, white, and green peppercorns come from the same plant—a climbing tropical vine, Piper nigrum. Black peppercorns are picked before they are mature and left intact; they turn black as they dry in the sun. White peppercorns ripen completely, then have the outer husk removed. Green peppercorns are picked early, and the fresh berries are usually soaked in brine, vinegar, or their own juices. “Peppers” that are not pepper at all include pink peppercorns (berries of a rose plant that is cultivated in Madagascar), Szechuan pepper (the berry of the prickly ash tree, also called “numb-hot” in China, because, in addition to being mildly hot, it is also slightly anesthetic), and Jamaican pepper (allspice).

Peppers vary greatly. The aromatic, spicy-sweet Tellicherry pepper contrasts with the hot, fragrant Malabar—both are from India, and both are worth trying. Lampong from Indonesia (the former Dutch East Indies) and Sarawak from Malaysia are also good, balancing nicely between heat and pungency. Sumatra’s Muntok is said to be the world’s finest white pepper. The flavor of pepper deteriorates fairly quickly once the peppercorns have been ground, so it is always best to grind pepper as needed—especially if you go to the trouble of finding some of the better peppers. And do try to find the better peppers. They’re worth the search.

Copyright © 2011 Cynthia Clampitt


Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, Geography, History, Language

2 responses to “Pepper: King of Spices

  1. Molly Rogers

    Another excellent post. This one was so full of history, I really enjoy that aspect of your writing about food.
    Here in Bahrain they make a spicy pepper soup for women right after they give birth. It’s supposed to be restorative.
    I didn’t know the difference between the different kinds, I’ve always just taken it for granted, even though I have certain dishes that I will only use one kind or the other in. Like the lamb tagine I made yesterday. I always use white pepper for that, along with the rest of the spices. I did know the bit about grinding it in small quantities. I do the same for cardamom and cumin.
    Thank you so much for sharing this. I look forward to more.

    • Thanks, Molly. I too think the history of food is really interesting—so much more important than most people realize. I must say, that lamb tagine sounds nice—as does the pepper soup (I wonder if it’s anything like the pepper rasam from southern India). Yum. Sounds like you’re a good cook.

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