Pepper: The King of Spices

If you think “Dress Down Fridays” are extreme, consider the crafty 16th century sea merchant who initiated what may be the oddest dress code in workman’s history: “NO POCKETS AND NO CUFFS.” It seems the dock workers were stuffing their clothing with peppercorns, the most valuable commodity on board. In those days, pepper was held in more esteem than gold, and represented a steadier currency standard because the coins contained variable amounts of the precious metal. People often paid their rent in peppercorns, and debts could be erased for the appropriate amount of pepper. Families endowed their daughters’ dowries with the spice and it wasn’t uncommon for a down-on-his-luck noble to marry beneath his class for pepper. This offended certain aristocrats, and in an extreme case of over-seasoning a few of the pepper-hungry suitors were forced to gorge on the spice. Pepper was sprinkled liberally on government affairs as officials accepted pepper bribes for legislative favors, and used it in turn to lure prospective voters. In those days, a man might have been the salt of the earth, but if he had no pepper he was worthless.

Most of us don’t give pepper a second thought, even though it sits on just about every kitchen table in America. Yet this spice we take so for granted commanded such respect centuries ago that it put the wind in Columbus’ sails and virtually changed the course of history by playing a key role in the development of trade and conquest.

Pepper originated in the monsoon forests of the Malabar coast in southwest India, and has reigned as the “master spice” from its earliest usage about 4,000 years ago. Nomadic Arab tradesmen were responsible for introducing it along with other spices to the Phoenicians who controlled the spice trade in the Western World. Later on, the Arabs figured out how to cut out the middle man and monopolized spices until the Greeks forged new trade routes with the East. In the first century AD, a plucky Greek merchant sailor discovered the secret of the monsoon winds and by timing his voyages was able to cut the trip from the Mediterranean to India from two years to one.

Roman traders followed his example and soon became India’s best customers. Many exotic spices became Roman staples, but none was used more frequently than pepper. While the Greeks preferred their pepper for medicinal purposes (endorsed by Hippocrates, no less), the Romans went wild for the spice in their food. A special spice market was built in the city and its most prominent street was Via Piperatica—Pepper Street. Pepper was the first spice to make its way into Northern Europe as the Roman Empire spread. When the tables turned and the marauding Visigoths threatened Rome in its decline, huge amounts of pepper were uses to buy off the offenders who had developed a taste for the spice. When Rome fell, the supply of pepper to northern Europe skidded to a halt. It took the monumental force of the crusades to crack open the trade between north and south; and as pepper regained its popularity in Europe, merchants and traders began to seek improved means to supply the ensuing demand.

During the early phase of this renewed commerce, Venice was the city through which all spices flowed. Pepper was the largest import and, because the European craved it enough to consume over six and a half million pounds a year, Venetians could name their price for the spice. When the cost became unbearable, other Europeans sought new ways to get the spice for themselves.

The Portuguese first wrestled away control of the spice trade when Vasco de Gama made it to the west coast of India, but their mark up on pepper rivaled that of the Venetians. Not to be outdone, the Dutch East India Company was formed and its shipments of pepper cost the consumer even more. The British and the French each formed their own East India Companies, and finally competition brought the price of pepper down.

Six years before Vasco de Gama reached the East, Christopher Columbus set out in search of a similar route. As with all the other explorers, his goal was to return with a ship full of spices. When he landed in the Americas, the closest thing he could find to pepper were the chilies used by the Indians. He brought the fiery vegetables back and called them by the same name as the spice, a confusion that lasts till this day. Columbus would have been proud to know that once the peppercorn plant was introduced to the New World, Brazil became one of the world’s largest producers of the spice.

When America became a contender in world trade, Salem, Massachusetts led the country in imports, and pepper was its largest and most expensive commodity. Salem was able to become the world’s premier pepper shipper, re-exporting 7.5 million pounds a year in the early 1800s, due the the Yankee ingenuity behind the design of the clipper ship—the fastest, most efficient ship in the world. The country’s first millionaire, Elias Haskett Derby, became wealthy by importing pepper and later spiced up Yale University by endowing his riches there.

Today pepper is still the king of spices, and accounts for one quarter of all modern spice trade. Its ability to subtly enliven foods without overpowering their flavour makes it indispensable in cuisines around the world. From the common pepper shaker to pricey upscale grinders with multicolor peppercorns, it is hard to imagine cooking without this spice. You may not pay your rent with it, but the hottest thing in your spice cabinet is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Other articles of interest: The Spice Trade, A Taste of Adventure, Spices, or the Dawn of the Modern Age, and Books on the Spice Trade and Food History