I can confirm that humble pepper is in the top three things added to food. The others are water and salt. So should I ignore such a common ingredient? Of course not, it is the very fact that it has become such a common ingredient that makes it so fascinating. The humble Piper Nigrum (black plant) is native to south west India or more precisely to the Malabar coast of India. The very word derived from the Sanskrit word ‘pippali’. Its cultivation there has been traced back to 3000 BC, making the locals some of the first chefs, food for survival rather than taste was the order of the day back in Europe.
Before we start our pepper journey let me settle exactly what we pepper is; black, white and green pepper are from the same fruit. All pepper is made from the unripe fruit which is green, so green peppercorn are natural (freeze dried or treated), to get black peppercorn you boil them lightly before drying them and white pepper is simply the seed only (outer flesh removed). Pink pepper is a different plant. Now that we are clear we can start the journey.
For nearly 2000 years, the good folk of Malabar seemed to keep the king of spices well sheltered from the eyes of the world, and little if any mention is made of the little black balls outside India. The ancient Egyptians changed this and let the genie out of the bag. In the last millennium before Christ pepper reaches the Middle East through routes unknown. Known it may be, but common it is not, pepper was used in the mummification process, the nostrils of Ramesses II where found to be packed with black pepper. At the same time the spice was heading East to China where it was surprisingly used mostly in medicine, one of the very rare faux pas of culinary China (this was later redressed and pepper was consumed with gusto)
The first recorded trading comes in Alexandria in around 300 BC, oddly for such a port the spice is brought overland retracing the founders footsteps and finishing in the famous city at the “Pepper Gate” From there it was a simple step to follow the prevailing power mongers of Greece and finally Rome where it was used as spice and medicine. So valuable, that it is seen as valuable as gold. Your Roman celebrity chef could not help sprinkling pepper on everything, just to impress. Nothing was immune; it was sprinkled on apricots with wine (pepones et melons) a sort of Roman muesli (aliter dulcia) and of course on many more recognisable dishes. With great power comes great spice and the Romans took their favourite spice with them as they gallivanted round Europe “civilising” us. It was still rare and still valuable and is likely that us barbarians rarely got a taste. Though the Empire had opened up sea routes to fetch the precious spice, it was still up there with gold. The fall of Rome was not immune to the pepper effect both the Hun and the Visigoths demanded large amounts of pepper so as not to sack Rome.
As the Roman Empire fell away, pepper continued coming to Europe but went back land routes and kept up its rarity value, only consumed by the very highest echelons of society. The trade route was held firmly by Middle Eastern powers and distribution was through Italy. Vasco De Gama, the first man to sale round the Cape, did so to “seek Christians and spice” (and possibly not in that order) Though it took him 3 trips to set up a pepper monopoly, like modern drugs the spice still found its way into Europe through other means. This was pretty much the status quo, imported or smuggled and still high end stuff, till the 17 century when the English and the Dutch took over from the Portuguese. The Dutch invade Malabar and with more modern shipping start importing much large amounts of pepper. The amounts increase, but as more and more people are given access to this spice, the overall value of the pepper trade stays the same. This is truly the beginning of the use of pepper as the “common” spice we know today. A small note on the power of pepper (not culinary) a certain Elihu Yale was the Governor of Madras in the late 1600, he held this position under the auspices of the British East India Company. He held the post for 20 odd years during which time he amassed a fortune trading spices, mainly pepper. This was directly in contradiction to Company rules and his time came to an inglorious end when the Company asked him to “spend more time with his family” Some of this great fortune was given to a friend of his to build a small institute of learning in Connecticut. In recognition of this gift they named the institute Yale, today it retains its name but is larger. The power of pepper.