Unlike salt, pepper is not essential for life, but the two have been inextricably linked for millennia. Pepper was well known to the Romans, (to them, it was piper), and was so popular that Pliny the Elder complained that: - “… in no year does India drain our empire of less than five hundred and fifty millions of sesterces, giving back her own wares in exchange, which are sold among us at fully one hundred times their prime cost.” (Pliny, Natural History, Book VI, Ch. 26). In contemporary terms, that is £1,400,000 per annum; today, pepper still accounts for over 20% of the worldwide spice trade.
Black pepper is produced from the unripe green seeds of the pepper tree. The seeds are briefly boiled in water and then left to dry. To make White pepper, the ripe red seeds are boiled in water and then left to soak for about a week (a process called retting), before rubbing to remove the flesh. These are then dried and ground later.
One of earliest cookery books is Apicius (De re coquinaria) (“On Cookery”), which includes pepper in 349 of its 468 recipes. Apicius is a collection of ten separate recipe books, (not, as some think, written by the notorious Roman gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius), compiled in about the 4th Century CE, and includes such gems as this: -
Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot, add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar, to be parboiled. Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must to give it colour. In the mortar crush pepper, cumin, coriander, laser root, mint, rue, moisten with vinegar, add dates, and the fond of the braised bird, thicken, strain, cover the bird with the sauce and serve. Parrot is prepared in the same manner.
Apicius Bk. VI, 231.
After Rome fell, pepper continued to be traded from the Malabar coast of India, via Arab traders into Italy, the city states of which had a virtual monopoly on it. In a bid to break this monopoly, other European nations sought a sea-route to the East, in particular the English, the Dutch and the Portuguese. Such were the vast quantities that were bought from them, the people of the Spice Islands believed that the houses of the English must be so cold that in order to make them warm, they plastered the walls with crushed pepper. The marvelous story of the Spice trade, and the wars it caused, is told in the wonderful book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton, a book I cannot recommend too highly.
In a letter to Cuthwin, the monk Cuthbert wrote that when the Venerable Bede (remember him) was on his deathbed, he said to him “I have certain things of value in my casket, that is some pepper, napkins and incense; but run quickly and bring the priests of our monastery unto me hither, that I also may distribute to them the little gifts such as God hath granted me.” This indicates how valuable pepper was regarded at the time.
A common fallacy is that, in the past, people would use spices to disguise the taste of rotten meat. Spices were phenomenally expensive in the past, and people may well have over-used them in a display of conspicuous consumption and to impress their fellows, but the same people who could afford to buy the spices could certainly afford top-quality meat too. And our ancestors were not stupid – they knew fine well that eating rotten food would make them ill. Further to which, there were stringent regulations in the past regarding the quality of food – in 1319, for example, one William Sperlyn was sentenced to the pillory for selling two bad carcasses of beef.
Mulligatawny soup gets its name from the Tamil milagu tanni – 'pepper water'. Eliza Acton gives a recipe for Mullagatawny [sic] Soup in the Modern Cookery for Private Families. This book, published in 1845, was the first cookery book aimed at the domestic cook (rather than the professional). It was also the first to include lists of ingredients and suggested cooking times, (and the first recorded recipe for Brussels Sprouts!). Later writers, including Mrs Beeton, used Acton’s book as a model for their own works.
Tomorrow – mustard.