As dear as pepper. ~ medieval French proverb
Called the “king of spices,” pepper is a flowering vine cultivated for its fruit in its native India, where it has served as a spice since prehistoric times.
The familiar pepper spice comes in green, white, and black varieties, depending upon the ripeness of the seed that is ground to make the spice, and whether the outer skin is rubbed off (white).
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans knew of pepper. The mummy of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II (1303 – 1213 bce) had its nostrils stuffed with black peppercorns.
Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder (23 – 79) wondered why anyone would want to eat something that tasted so bad and was neither salty nor sweet. Besides, Pliny complained, black pepper was being counterfeited.
Juniper berries laid amid black pepper shrink to its size and acquire its taste. This is the oldest known example of the spice-swindling racket that continues to this day.
Pepper became so valuable during Roman times that it was used as a form of currency. The taste for pepper was passed on to those who sought Rome’s fall. Prior to sacking Rome in 410, Alaric the Visigoth demanded a ransom of a ton of pepper to leave off. Attila the Hun later tried the same trick a few decades later, though he was unable to seize either pepper or Rome.
By the end of the Dark Ages the Arabs had secured a monopoly of the wholesale spice trade. Italian city-states Venice and Genoa rose in part from profits from the spice trade.
By the 15th century, a fistful of peppercorns was worth a small fortune. To prevent peppercorn theft, 16th-century dockworkers in the spice trade had to wear clothing without pockets or cuffs.
Columbus sought a western route to the East Indies (India) from Europe via the Atlantic Ocean. In what came to be called the West Indies by confounded Europeans, Columbus discovered chilies that had a fiery, pungent flavor like black pepper. He brought them back to Europe, calling them peppers. The confusion between chilies and pepper remains to this day, 6 centuries later.
Beginning with Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, who sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to reach India in 1498, Portugal came to dominate the black pepper trade. This continued into the 18th century.
The pepper plant made its way to the New World in the 19th century. This lessened pepper’s price but not its value. Pepper today represents 25% of the world spice trade.
Black pepper aids digestion, partly by stimulating more hydrochloric acid. Pepper has antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Ants refuse to walk over a line of pepper.