It’s been referred to as the King spice, or the Master spice. It’s earliest known use? Shortly after his death in 1213 B.C.E. black peppercorns were stuffed into the nostrils of Ramesses II as part of his mummification ritual.
While Perigord truffles are known as “black diamonds”, pepper has been used for more than a millennium as a form of commodity money and is often referred to as “black gold”. The phrase “peppercorn rent” refers to the consideration that might be paid by one party to another to make a legal contract binding. (There is even a building in Bermuda with a 200-year-old rent contract that is still paid in peppercorns!)
Many major spice route ports-of-trade had a “no pockets, no cuffs” rule to prevent dockhands from squirreling away or pilfering small quantities of peppercorns. Most required day laborers to cut off their pockets and sew the remaining hand-hole shut before they were allowed to work on the docks with this precious spice.
When we speak of “peppercorns” we are referring to the dried fruit or seeds of the Piper nigrum plant (technically a vine). While there are many different regions that now produce Piper nigrum, the Malabar Coast of India is still considered by many to be the Holy Grail of pepper production.
It was this area of India that shifted the course of history and kick-started the “Age of Discovery” or “Age of Exploration” as various European countries and their fearless seafarers searched for quicker trade routes to Indochina to bring home (among other things) this most sought after spice. In the category of Long Forgotten Spice History, we are reminded that it was the Portuguese sailor Vasco de Gama who first reached India by sailing around Africa.
By the year 1512 the Portuguese had also found the Spice Islands (not the bottled brand of spices) and by 1522 the first circumnavigation of the globe was completed. All this because the rest of the civilized world NEEDED what Southwest Asia had – pepper!
As a result, during the Middle Ages a man’s wealth was typically determined by his stock of peppercorns. And, while most could not afford whole peppercorns (they were primarily a commodity of the wealthy) spice trading companies found a way to sell pepper to the poor as well. In a world where food preservation options were limited, people from all walks of life immediately recognized the benefit of pepper. When used in food preparation its unique flavor profile has the ability to mask “less than fresh” flavors – so, everyone wanted some!
Enter the concept of ground pepper. It wasn’t (and frankly still shouldn’t be) sold that way because it could be purchased in smaller quantities by the less advantaged. It was sold pre-ground so that it’s volume could be expanded with juniper berries, charcoal and even dust swept from the floor. We could call that society’s first attempt at food additives in the spice trade. And, no different from today, the main purpose of the additives was not to provide a better product but, to make more money. It’s always shameful no matter who’s responsible or when they do it!
Today Piper nigrum accounts for about 25% of the world’s total spice trade. What’s even more disturbing is that the primary grower and exporter of pepper is no longer India, but Vietnam! Almost 40% of all Piper nigrum comes from this country alone.
If you believe that all Piper nigrum is essentially equal and that you can basically get the same pepper no matter where you buy it from, you’d be partly correct and sadly mistaken at the same time. (depending on where you live, or do your shopping all available pepper might come from a single source or country – you might never know or come to appreciate the differences) There are huge differences in flavor profile and quality of product being offered, depending on where they are grown and how they are processed. That should come as no surprise, because it hold’s true for almost everything we eat, right?
Next up we’ll discuss those differences, including the difference between whole and ground pepper. Additionally, we’ll give you everything you need to select and buy good quality peppercorns!