Minute grains of flavour and history

Minute grains of flavour and history

  • The peppercorn, is the queen of all spices and the cause of multiple international conflicts throughout history

Whether in a small condiment set or in an elegant pepper mill, pepper is found on dining tables all over the world. The ease in which it can be bought in supermarkets and grocers belies its role as a source of international conflict throughout history.

Almost 3,500 years ago, when the body of pharaoh Ramesses II was being prepared for burial, the embalmer placed a few grains of pepper in the nasal cavities to mark the greatness of the dead man. At the time the precious spice was brought from India via the first commercial routes.

Later, in the first century AD, Pliny the Elder wrote: "Some foods attract us by their sweet taste, others by their appearance whereas pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation to either fruit or berry, its only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India!"

At that time, the Arabs held the monopoly on pepper and its price was so extortionate that the Roman emperor Augustus sent an expedition to Arabia to try, without success, to break it.

The Church and European nobles undertaking the Crusades also tried to break the Arab monopoly but it was the Portuguese who, during the 15th century, were able to find alternative routes, circumnavigating the African continent to reach Calcutta, Ceylon, Java, Borneo and the Maluku Islands; the latter being where pepper originated.

Today, although pepper (Piper nigrum) is also grown in South America, Africa, India or Brazil, most of the supply comes from the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Pepper berries form on a climbing vine and are rich in an alkaloid called piperine, which gives it the characteristic pungent flavour. Piperin develops as the fruit matures. Thus, the green pepper, which is the berry collected before it is fully ripe, is less spicy than the black or white, and is usually sold fresh in brine or vinegar. The black pepper is the same berry collected at its optimum point of maturity, scalded and dried, and the white is the ripe berry soaked for a week to remove the skin and then dried. What we call pink pepper is actually the seed of a plant native to Brazil (Schinus therebintifolius) and which the Portuguese introduced as a cheap alternative to authentic pepper.