Everything You Should Know and Few Other Interesting Facts About Black Pepper
Is a pepper a fruit? What are the benefits of black pepper? Where does black pepper come from? Have you ever wondered where the term pepper price came from? This is about black pepper history and how it became so used and popular in kitchens all over the world. This is a story of the plant and spice, but also of ancient civilisations, greed, wars, the discovery of America and other great explorations and, of course, cooking.
Black pepper is today an indispensable spice in every kitchen, what makes it the most commonly used spice in the world. Some may argue that salt is the most used condiment in the kitchen, but salt technically is not a spice, but a mineral.
However, pepper is only recently accessible and a cheap commodity on the shelves of supermarkets. The history of pepper goes back 4000 years and the demand for it has had a tremendous impact on the shaping of modern civilization. Before the oil, the term “black gold” referred to the pepper.
Pepper originates from Southern India, around city Kerala. The plant pepper (lat. Piper nigrum) belongs to climbing plants from the family Piperaceae, that is grown for their fruit which gives spice – pepper. According to botanists, every plant that has seeds is a fruit, so for this reason the pepper is considered a fruit.
The first records of pepper date back to 2000 years BC when it was mentioned in ancient Indian writings, and peppercorns were found in the nostrils of the pharaoh Ramses II. Pepper was well known to the ancient Romans, so the Roman historian Plinius Elder wrote about pepper in his work on Natural History from the first century AD. There is also a well-preserved cookbook from the 3rd Century De Re Coguinaria, where pepper is an integral part of almost every dish.
Pliny states the prices of pepper, but also writes that: “Long pepper … is fifteen denarii per pound, while that of white pepper is seven, and of black, four”, which is a quite high price for that time. Let’s just say the soldier’s salary was around 30 denarii per month. However, Pliny, fond of moralizing, raises another very important question:
“Pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation to either fruit or berry, its only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India! Who was the first to make trial of it as an article of food? And who, I wonder, was the man that was not content to prepare himself by hunger only for the satisfying of a greedy appetite?
What makes pepper so desirable? What are the benefits of black pepper? Answering this question is not easy, but we will try to explore it.
First, the most important reason why spices are used is to improve the taste of food, but through history, spices also had a secondary purpose. Interesting fact is, in the absence of a toothbrush and toothpaste, people used spices to remove or at least reduce the bad breath. Pepper was very good for this purpose because, except for the strong flavour, it was believed that it had antiseptic properties.
Here is another reason for the demand for pepper, medical. It was believed that pepper helps with toothache, constipation, insomnia, sunburn and many other illnesses.
In addition, pepper reduces the formation of gases, stimulates urination and sweating to release toxins from the body.
Pepper is used to alleviate respiratory problems, and has antibacterial properties, but also has the potential as antioxidants. List of all health benefits from black pepper is long.
There are some researches which indicate it has antitumor properties as well.
It is useful in losing weight, since the outer coat of peppercorn positively affects the breakdown of fat cells in the body.
The third reason why the pepper was so desired and such an expensive commodity is that it can significantly shape the human history is simple – prestige. Having pepper on desk was a matter of prestige and show of wealth.
Thus, a pinch of pepper meant more delicious food, better digestion, lack of bad breath, and also a better health and position in society. Taking all this into consideration, it is clear why pepper was such a desired commodity.
In Europe pepper demand has logically stimulated pepper trade, and since it is grown in India, it has created a number of logistical problems, resulting in a demand that is always higher than the supply, and hence a high price. Pepper has thus become a synonym for a high price or – a pepper price. Hence, that term.
Peppercorn price hung up Alaric, King of the Visigoths, when he besieged Rome. In exchange for dragging and not destroying the city, he sought gold and silver from the Romans, but it is quite interesting, he did not forget to add either 3000 pounds of pepper.
After Alaric, Rome did not last long and with the collapse of Rome in 476AD, Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages. The spice trade moved eastward, taken over by the Eastern Roman Empire known as Byzantium, and more so by Islamic merchants.
After the fall of Rome, the spice market was completely disrupted, and those who first exploited the opportunity was the small Italian cities – Venice and Genoa. Skilful merchants from these cities joined Islamic ones and began trading spices, mostly pepper. The Venetian Republic, one of the greats powers of the Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries, emerged from this trade and pepper contributed to this rise. According to some written records from that time at the end of the 15th century, only merchants from Alexandria exported 400 tons of black pepper per year to Venice, and the Venetians earned a 40% margin on it.
Constantinople, and therefore Byzantium, 1453 g. fell in the hands of the new emerging power – the Ottoman Empire. By conquering the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, the Turks now controlled the entire spice trade from the east. In addition to the conquest, the Turks had another disadvantage for Europeans – they were excellent merchants and had a monopoly on pepper trade in Europe, which meant – bigger price.
The Venetians continued to trade with the Turks, this time under Turkish conditions. However, in other countries, adventurers have appeared willing to challenge the position of Venice as the main spice importer and trader. One such was Christopher Columbus. He managed to persuade the Spanish royal couple Izabela I and Ferdinand II, to finance his journey to search East India by sailing west. Columbus was one of the first who accepted the Copernican realization that the earth is round, which at that time was very bold, considering the then current Church teaching and preferences of religious inquisition to burn down opponents.
In 1493 Columbus, with his three ships, went on a journey that would later prove to be one of the most important in the history of mankind, as he found a new continent – latterly known as America. However, Columbo was firm in his belief that he had found the East coast of India. Due to this blunder, the locals found there he called the Indians, and that name remained to them today, even though they had absolutely no connection with India. However, this was not the end of his self-esteem as he was in India. Among other things, he found a new plant – chilli peppers, whose fruits were a bit like pepper, and called it a red pepper. If you have noticed the similar etymological origin of paprika and pepper in different languages, even though these two plants have no similarity – it should also thank to Columbus. And now most interesting fact. Because of his ignorance, the new continent he discovered was named America, by another researcher Amerigo Vespucci, simply because he was the first to realise that this was a new continent.
In any case, Spaniards had discovered a new continent, but neither were the Portuguese were sitting idly. Vasco da Gamma only a few years later circumnavigated the Africa and really came to India, as he said to the Sultan who ruled there, in search for Christians and spices. It was the beginning of the Portuguese dominance of the pepper trade. Thus, Portuguese king Manuel himself has taken the right to have a monopoly over pepper trade, and therefore French king Francois I called him “le roi épicier”, meaning “the grocer king”. But the grocer king sold about 2 million pounds of pepper each year as it came from the Malabar coast and raised millions of cruzados. And then the pepper had 70% of the total spice trade. Very hypocritical statement Francois, given that he had a serious problem with his state treasury.
New founded trade routes solved the distribution problem, which is why prices have fallen and pepper has become available to a somewhat larger number of citizens. This was the time when pepper entered the regional and national cuisine of almost all European countries, alongside then traditional spices. At this time, well-known spice blends such as quatre in France, Cajun and jerk blends in New World, garam masala in India, ras el hanout in Morocco, and many others are being created.
During the 16th Century, Portugal and Spain, due to newly discovered territories and trade routes, continued to build their colonial empires. It did not go unnoticed by another state that has just ruled out the Spanish occupation – the Netherlands. In order to finance travel and find new colonies and trade routes, the Netherlands have invented a new way of financing – selling bonds and shares of stock to the general public. This will later become known as the first stock exchange. Although Italian cities knew the system of transferable government bonds, it was not a stock exchange in today’s sense of the word. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was the first company in the world to issue shares to capitalize, and with these shares it they were later traded freely on a permanent market.
Later, the company became the first multinational company, in today’s sense of the word, and the first company constantly listed on the stock exchange. And at one point it was the most valuable company in the world.
Over time, the Netherlands pushed down the Portuguese and took control of the shipping routes through which spices came into Europe. However, neither their domination lasted for a long time, as another superpower became interested in spice trade – the United Kingdom. This lead to several wars between the Dutch and the United Kingdom, which ultimately resulted in the victory of the British, the takeover of trade routes and a bit later with collapse of the Dutch East India Company.
The British have the merit of making pepper widely available, improving the production and supply of pepper to Europe. Thanks to them, the pepper will go out of history and will increasingly enter the cuisine.
Thus, during the 16th and 17th centuries as Pepper spread across Europe and entered the kitchens of wider range of population. The pepper has lost its prestige as a luxury good and suddenly it was not so prestigious to use pepper. However, during the period of the Enlightenment in France in the 18th century pepper was back in a big way. Francois Pierre de la Varenne, was the first, let’s call it a celebrity chef in France, and in his works, he promoted the use of pepper together with salt. His “invention” will be held to this day, and this is certainly one of the proofs that the Enlightenment was not only politically and scientifically oriented but brought some of the new revolutionary ideas in the kitchen as well.
Today, pepper is the most widely used spice in the world, and it is considered that 20% of the total spice trade is pepper. Production balance has shifted, so it is the world’s largest producer of pepper is Vietnam. One more quite interesting fact, the largest producers in the world with more than 1/3 of the world’s total production, Vietnam exports virtually all the production, since the Vietnamese do not use pepper in their diet. India is only in third place, even behind Indonesia.
Unlike Vietnamese, the peoples of the United States are the biggest pepper buyers. Over $ 650 million worth of pepper is being imported into the US and this makes them to the second largest consumers per capita. The largest pepper consumers per capita are Tunisians, who use a quarter-pound of pepper per capita each year.
Finally, let’s mention, today there are over 2000 types of pepper, and the most common are:
- Black pepper – is obtained by picking green grains, and then without any processing dried in the sun. Black pepper is most commonly used in the kitchen.
- White pepper – obtained by levying red, nearly ripe berries, that are then moistened to be able to remove outside layer, and only then dried. White pepper has a slightly milder flavour than black, and also is considered to be healthier.
- Red pepper – is obtained from fully ripe, red beans, which are dipped in salt water, then frozen or quickly dried. Its smell is most often described as a mixture of pepper and lemon.
- Green pepper – is obtained by picking the grain before ripening. The grain process is the same as that of a red pepper.