Pepper, often referred to as the king of spices, accounts for approximately one quarter of the world’s spice trade. It is widely used in virtually all cuisines and is highly prized because it has the ability to enhance and enliven foods without overpowering their flavours.
Pepper, more than just about any other commodity, has changed the course of history by playing a key role in the development of trade routes. It has reigned supreme as the king of spices since its earliest use some 4,000 years ago. Pepper is native to the Malabar coast in southwest India.
Pepper was the first spice to find its way to northern Europe. Until the first century AD, a round trip from the Mediterranean to India and back took four years. Even after then, when mariners discovered how to take advantage of the monsoon winds, the round trip still took two years. Little wonder, then that pepper was so highly prized and valued, at times changing hands at four times the price of gold. Peppercorns were used to pay rents, extinguish debts, pay dowries and bribe politicians. Rome became the centre of the spice trade in the west, with its own spice market built around Via Piperatica (Pepper Street). Such was its value that pepper was used to buy off the Visigoths when they threatened Rome.
Following the fall of Rome, Venice emerged as the major trading city and pepper was its greatest import. The Venetian merchants inflated the price of pepper to unbearable levels, motivating others to seek out new trade routes. First came the Portuguese when Vasco de Gama opened up a trade route to India in 1498; later, East India Companies were formed by the Dutch, British and French. Eventually market forces did their trick and competition forced down the price of pepper. However, as late as the nineteenth century pepper was still a road to riches for some – the USA’s first millionaire (Elias Haskett Derby) made his fortune from its import.
It can be confusing that chillies are also called chilli peppers. The blame rests with Christopher Columbus who in 1492 set sail in search of pepper and other exotic spices. As we know, he landed in the Americas where the nearest things he could find to pepper were fiery chillies and, not one to admit defeat, he named them (chilli) peppers!
Pepper is available as whole or cracked peppercorns or in powdered form. Peppercorns are the fruit of the pepper plant.
Black pepper is by far the most common. Black peppercorns are picked unripe, then dried until black and hard. They are pungent and fiery in taste.
White peppercorns are allowed to ripen on the vine; once harvested they are soaked in water, the outer skin is rubbed off and the grey inner peppercorns are dried until they turn creamy white. They are slightly less pungent than black peppercorns.
Green peppercorns are the unripe berries sometimes freeze-dried but most commonly preserved in brine or vinegar and have a mild fresh flavour.
Pink peppercorns, from a different species of pepper plant, have a brittle outer shell enclosing a small seed. They taste aromatic rather than pungent.
Pepper’s traditional medicinal uses (some endorsed by Hippocrates) are to treat gastro-intestinal upsets and flatulence, to calm nausea and to treat fevers and chills (it raises body temperature). Its essential oil is used in perfumery and flavourings.