The History of Pepper

It is one of the most innocuous of spices. We see it every day, on nearly every table, and very few ever give two thoughts about the stuff. For many, it’s the first real spice that we get to eat on a regular basis. No – it’s not salt (which is, technically speaking, a mineral and not a spice). Rather, it’s black pepper, the Bud Abbot to salt’s Lou Costello.

Black pepper has been around for nearly 4000 years, fortuitously not so coincidentally from the Black Pepper plant that is found native to the Western Ghats of Kerala State, India, where it still occurs wild in the mountains. The Black Pepper plant is also called Piper nigrum. Most black pepper comes from India, but it is also exported from Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil.

It’s also one of the spices that had launched the spice trade, along with ginger (which I’ll get to next). It was quite popular in Rome, as Pliny the Elder had remarked. It has remained a near necessity in Europe ever since. They were also rare (as were many spices), and for a time was used in lieu of currency.

The Worshipful Company of Grocers, a Livery Company (aka Trade Guild) in London actually got its start as the Guild of Pepperers waaaay back in 1180. Their purpose, as with most guilds, was to maintaining standards for the purity of the spice and for the setting of certain weights and measures for distributing the spice. They became so good at their task with pepper that they became the Spice Guild, and then later evolved into the Grocer’s Guild.

Black Pepper (as well as other spices) was one of the primary reasons for the search for a sea route to India. Portugal made inroads, and actually controlled the pepper trade for a while, but countries with larger, more efficient navies, as well as smuggling, forced them out rather quickly. And once technology evolved to such a point where pepper could be imported on a regular basis, prices for the spice quickly fell and pepper’s popularity further increased as it became available to markets that previously could not afford it.

How important it Black Pepper to the spice trade? Consider this. Today, it seems rather innocuous as it sits there on your table. But it makes up 20% of today’s world spice trade. So, yeah. Black Pepper is a big deal.

I’ll be focusing on Black Pepper recipes when time and opportunity allows. Expect a few recipes and hopefully a few more tips and stories surrounding the spice.

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