Black pepper (piper nigrum), the world’s most widely used spice is indigenous to the rain forests of Kerala. From very ancient times this priced spice has played an important role in promoting trade between the East and the West. Pepper had a colorful history as it followed the trade routes to the west.
From the earliest days of navigation nomadic Arabs and ancient Phoenicians were trading with the southwest India. During the early pre-Christian era sea trade between Middle East and India was in the hands of Arabs. They transported spices, incense, and oils from the East by land as well as through the Persian Gulf to Arabia. South Arabia became the great spice emporium of the ancient world.
The seamen of Ptolemaic Egypt were reluctant to risk a long voyage close to the Arab-controlled shoreline of India. During the reign of Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III, seaports were built along the shores of the Red Sea. Around 116 B.C., while Ptolemy VII was the king, a Greek sailor managed to sail with the winds and reach India’s southwest coast, marking the beginnings of a thriving Egyptian, and later Roman spice trade. Ptolemy XI bequeathed Alexandria to the Romans in 80 BC; and by 40 AD it had become not only the greatest commercial center in the world but also the preeminent emporium for spices.
The rapid growth of Roman trade with south India in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. led to the introduction of a direct route from Red Sea ports to the ancient port of Muziris (Kodungallor) in central Kerala. Roman ships left in July, at the height of the monsoon season and returned back with the reverse northwest monsoons in November. They used the most southerly course even in the worst monsoons, especially as the sighting of the Lakshadweep Islands two hundred miles from mainland gave them excellent guide to their destination.
The Roman trade began to weaken during the 3rd century A.D. Arab and Ethiopian middlemen began to take control of the trade. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Arabs held the control of spice trade for a long time. By this time Venice had become a great sea power and controlled the Adriatic Sea. Arab traders took their merchandise to Alexandria and the Venetians dominated in the distribution of pepper and other spices from the Mid-east to Western Europe. Major Mid-east market centers were Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Alexandria. With these virtual monopolies pepper price skyrocketed and only the rich were able to afford it. Pepper was sold for exorbitant prices all over Western Europe.
The higher prices frustrated other European nations and the quest for a new source of pepper fueled the enthusiasm of the great explorers of the Renaissance. During the latter half of 15th century the Spanish and the Portuguese built stronger ships and ventured abroad in search of a new ocean route to the spice producing countries of the east. Portugal was convinced that India could be reached by sailing around the coast of Africa. The famous Portuguese explorer Vaso da Gama arrived in Kerala in 1498 A.D. that marked the beginning of the Portuguese dominance of the lucrative spice trade from India. The conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 A.D. had already marked the decline of Venice. The advent of the Portuguese through the newly discovered ocean route totally ended the Arab and Venetian monopoly of pepper trade. In the following years, Lisbon became one of the wealthiest towns of Europe.
The Dutch full of energy and zeal after gaining their freedom from Spain in the 16th century made their first voyages to the East Indies during 1595 A.D. through 1598 A.D. In 1602 A.D. the Dutch East India Company was founded. By 1663 A.D. the Dutch gained trade supremacy in the east by defeating the Portuguese. The British East India Company was formed in 1600 A.D. under the royal charter granted by the queen Elizabeth I. Conflict erupted between the Dutch and English in the following years and the English East India Company eventually broke a 200-year Dutch monopoly. Today the monopolies are long broken and black pepper is freely traded in world commodity markets.
Long pepper, piper longum, was one of the most valuable Indian exports of ancient times. In Sanskrit it is called “pippali” and black pepper is called “maricha”. In Europe long pepper was used as medicine. Ancient Greek traders thought that black pepper was a variety of long pepper and called it “peperi”, and in Latin it became “piper”. Black pepper’s Sanskrit name was unknown in the west and it became piper nigrum in Latin.
The consumption of pepper grew astonishingly in the days of the Roman Empire and pepper became the most typical spice in medieval Europe. Before the days of refrigeration and the invention of other methods of preservation, pepper and salt were the only preservatives available to man. It was a status symbol of fine cookery and a description of a lavish feast invariably mentioned pepper, if not other spices. Recipes for pepper sauces even appeared in Roman novels of 1st century A.D. Pepper reigned as a paramount spice for several centuries. The rise of French cuisine during the 17th century A.D. put an end to over-spicing of food and milder spices and herbs slowly replaced black pepper. The price of pepper dropped dramatically with the decrease in demand. By the middle of 19th century A.D. pepper prices dropped to six cents a kilogram in the world markets.
Despite the drop in its price pepper continues remain a favorite spice. The world today consumes as much black pepper as all other spices combined. It is used in one way or other in most cuisines and it is used to prepare just about every kind of dish, including desserts! The aroma of pepper comes from essential oils while the pungency in pepper comes from the presence of an alkaloid called piperine.
Ocean trade between South India and South East Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia was prevalent in the early centuries, which facilitated the transplantation of pepper. The Portuguese transplanted pepper to tropical regions under their control. Today pepper is cultivated in the tropical regions near the equator around the globe. There are pepper plantations in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Brazil, and Sri Lanka. India and Indonesia together produce about half of the pepper traded in the world markets.
Pepper grows on climbing evergreen perennial vines with large leaves. This woody climber may reach heights of thirty-five feet by means of its aerial roots. It has broad shiny green leaves and white flowers that grow on slender spikes. The flowers yield small green berries that almost resemble a bunch of tiny grapes. As the berries ripen they begin to turn yellowish red in color.
The pepper plant requires long rainy season and fairly high temperatures and partial shade for best growth. The tropical climate and the heavy monsoons of Kerala are ideal for this plant. New plants are produced from cuttings that are planted near trees or poles for support for the climber. In two to five years the plant begins to produce berries. Pepper plants live for as long as forty years. In Kerala these creepers can be spotted in backyards clinging to areca and coconut palms and mango and jackfruit trees. In pepper plantations they are generally grown on wooden poles. Pepper plants are sometimes interspersed in tea and coffee plantations.
Pepper is marketed in four different colors: black, white, red and green. It is interesting to note that all four varieties can be harvested from the same pepper plant by changing the time of harvest and processing method. To produce black pepper, the berries are picked when they just start to turn yellow. Black peppercorns are the sun-dried, slightly unripe fruits of the pepper vine. Some farmers store the harvested peppercorns at room temperature while others dip them in hot water for about ten minutes after the harvest. As a result of fermentation, the color of the berries turns black. In Kerala it is still dried in direct sunlight. Sun-drying the pepper berries just before they are fully ripe produces the prized variety. At this stage the berries have an orange-yellow color and excellent flavor.
The less potent white pepper comes from the same fruit that is picked when it is riper. The lighter color is accomplished by removing the outer skin of the berries. The ripe fruits are either kept in moist heaps for 2 to 3 days or kept in jute sacks submerged in running water for 7 to 15 days, depending on the region of production. Washing and rubbing or trampling removes the softened outer skin. The skinless berries are sun-dried to produce white pepper. White pepper has a different flavor but it retains the pungency of black pepper.
When pepper is harvested early, pickled in salt or vinegar and then dried at high temperature or in a vacuum, it becomes green pepper. Since berries are unripe, green pepper is highly aromatic with almost an herbal flavor, but less pungent. When the same kind of processing is applied to fully ripe berries, it yields red peppercorns.
Modern pepper trade grades the spice based on its country of origin. The Indian grades are Malabar and Thalasseri (Tellicherry) and they are very aromatic. Kochi (Cochin) is the major pepper trade center in India. Pepper plants in Indonesia produce smaller berries. They are grayish black in color and have less aroma compared to Indian pepper. Pepper from Malaysia is mild and fruity. Brazilian pepper is very mild in taste.
India is the largest producer of black pepper. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Nagaland, and Andaman Islands are the areas that cultivate pepper. In fiscal 2000-2001, India exported approximately 19,250 metric tons of black pepper, which accounted for over 20% of the nation’s revenues from total spice exports. Kerala accounted for about 95% of the pepper farmland and 97% of the pepper production in India.
In order to protect their market and to enhance the price of the spices and also to discourage competitors, Arab traders artfully withheld the true sources of the spices they transported from Kerala. According to a 14th century book, The Nature of Things, pepper is the seed or fruit from a tree that grows in the lush forests on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains in the hottest sunshine. The pepper forests are full of snakes that guard the trees. When fruits are ripe, people set fire to the forest, the snakes flee, and the thick flames blacken the pepper fruits and make them sharper.
Trade monopoly of Arabs angered Emperor Marcus Aurelius and in 176 A.D. he began to levy customs duty, up to 25%, on the imports of pepper. Roman Emperor Domitian designated an area in the heart of the city as Ahorrea piperataria, pepper sheds, for the exclusive use of pepper merchants.
During much of the middle ages pepper was considered a symbol of wealth and affluence. In renaissance Italy, pasta dishes served at banquets were sprinkled with abundant quantities of black pepper and cinnamon, as a symbol of prosperity. Around that time, miniature ships of precious metal, inlaid with gems and filled with spices were used as table decorations. The princely houses of Europe had developed a passion for pepper that led to ostentatious display. In the 15th century, Charles the Brave of Burgundy had 289 pounds of pepper brought to his table for his wedding banquet.
Pepper was equivalent to money and people stored it under and lock and key. In 408 A.D. when Alaric, the King of Visigoths, besieged Rome he demanded a stiff price for sparing the city, which included fine garments, gold, silver and 3000 kilograms of pepper. A “proper bribe” from a merchant in Venice to a tax collector included among other things a pound of pepper. In early 11th century King Ethelred collected toll in the form of bags of pepper from ships that landed at Billingsgate. In 1101 A.D. soldiers of Genoa were rewarded with one kilogram of pepper each for their victory in a war. One of the oldest guilds in the City of London is the Guild of Pepperers, registered as Grosserii, or wholesalers, in 1328 A.D. And in France a pound of pepper could free a slave. In Germany a nickname for the rich was “pepper sacks”. When an English ship that sank in 1545 A.D. was raised from the ocean in the 1980’s, nearly every sailor’s body was found to have a bunch of peppercorns, the most portable valuable, in his possession.
In England a pound of pepper was a commonly accepted form of rent from land tenants. The term ‘peppercorn rent’ started off meaning that such a contract was taken very seriously based on the cost of a given weight of peppercorns per year, which were very expensive. Pepper was considered as a more stable form of currency than money. In later years pepper became cheap and a custom of handing a single peppercorn to confirm a tenancy came into existence. In 1973 the tributes Prince Charles received as he took possession of the Duchy of Cornwall included a pound of pepper.
Legend has it that on one his trips back from Kerala, Vasco Da Gama asked the king whether he could take a pepper stalk with him for replanting. The king, well known for sarcasm, responded calmly, “You may take our pepper, but I don’t think you will be able to take our rains,” referring to Kerala’s twin monsoons, almost a prerequisite for the growth of pepper plants.
While growing up in Kerala, black pepper was just another spice for me. The perennial pepper creepers grew in people’s backyards on areca and coconut palms, mango trees and jackfruit trees. I knew it was also cultivated in large plantations, but in those days little did I know of the fascinating history of black pepper. We thought it is a mild spice that only “foreigners” liked.
Ayurvedic (ancient Indian herbal medicine) physicians use pepper in several of their medications. A homemade cure for a bad migraine headache is a concoction of freshly crushed black pepper cooked in milk. The pepper paste has a strong smell, but once it is smeared on the forehead it always works like a charm. Pepper is also used in making homemade hair oil. Coconut oil is heated in pan and when it is hot a tablespoon each of raw parboiled rice and black peppercorns are added. When the rice puffs up in the hot oil, the pan is removed and the oil is strained. This oil has a faint smell of black pepper.
Pepper is used only sparingly in our spicy vegetarian cooking. Strangely enough we prefer the hot red chili peppers that the Portuguese traders introduced to us. We make black pepper soup during the monsoon season when most everyone catches a cold or cough. It is considered a preventive measure just like chicken soup in the West. In my childhood, leaving a set of salt and pepper shakers on the dining table was considered an insult to the ability of the cook to spice the food properly. Back home the skill of a traditional cook depends on his or her ability to judge taste with the eyes and nose. My uncle (who was educated in England) was the only one in our family who sprinkled pepper on top of his eggs, and we thought that he acquired this taste from his long stay in a foreign country.
We lived in the town of Alappuzha (Alleppy) some 150 away from my hometown, when my husband was teaching at a college there. Our neighbors across the street were pepper traders and they had their pepper warehouses next to their home. After the harvest huge sacks of black pepper were brought to the warehouse. In Kerala pepper is often dried on paved roads where heat accumulated on the road surface hastens the drying process. After the morning rush hour traffic, workers would spread the black pepper on the street to dry. Our street in a residential neighborhood did not have very heavy traffic. And it did not bother the pepper traders if an occasional car went by over the pepper spread, or if people walked over it to cross the street. They always cleaned the dried pepper before packing for sale.
My two and four year old boys loved riding their tricycles over the pepper spread. They used to peek through the window to see if the workers had spread the pepper on the road and would come running to me “amma, pepper is on the street, can we go biking”. They loved the smell and sound of fresh pepper berries crushing under their tricycle wheels. They came back soon when it got hot outside. And as the sun went down, the workers packed the peppercorns in sacks and took them to the warehouse. After the workers leave, servant maids from the neighborhood would come out to pick any leftover peppercorns from the street. Pepper was dried for a few days until it was completely dry. A few days later another harvest arrived and the process continued for a couple of months.
These days as I stand in line at the checkout counter of a gourmet grocer with a small bottle of Tellicherry pepper with a hefty price tag of $4.95, I often think about the good old days. In those days there was plenty of pepper around me, and it cost only pennies. And little did I know then of the true value of these precious berries from my home state.