Black pepper was one of the earliest commodities to be traded in the world. It is impossible to talk about black pepper without talking about the historical turn of events around trade, the spice routes that were established as a result of the trade and the beginning of what we call globalization today.

The early Roman Empire got direct access to the Malabar Coast in India and its range of exotic spices after their conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. To give you an idea of how precious black pepper was considered—3,000 pounds of black pepper was demanded along with gold, silver and silken tunics, as a ransom to free Rome besieged by the Huns. In 410 AD, Roman geographer Strabo documented that a fleet of 120 ships was sent on a round trip by the early empire on a one-year trip to China, South-East Asia and India. On their return, they travelled up the Red Sea, and cargo was carried via land to Alexandria (Egypt) and then shipped to Rome. These routes would later become the dominant routes for pepper trade from the Malabar Coast to Europe for more than 1,500 years to come.

The spice routes were the earliest trade routes and people braved treacherous sea voyages in search of precious tradable goods such as spices. Black pepper, termed black gold, was used as currency in the Middle Ages and the term “as dear as pepper" was used for anything very expensive. Portugal and Spain had intense rivalry between them, for control of the trade with the East. In 1494, this was arbitrated by the Pope and the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed, drawing an imaginary north-south line dividing through the Atlantic, which gave all the newly discovered lands to the west of this line to Spain and everything to the east to Portugal.

The prices of pepper were extremely high in the Middle Ages and the trade was completely dominated by the Romans. In the mid-15th century, Portugal was the leading maritime nation in all of Europe. Under the leadership of Prince Henry, the Navigator, all efforts were on to find a sea route to India to break the monopoly of the Romans, get a hold of the exotic spices from the East. Manuel I commissioned Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, to sail to India. He became the first person to sail from Europe to India, taking the circuitous route around Africa, avoiding the caravan Silk Routes through the Middle East and Central Asia. When da Gama arrived in Calicut, the existing Arab traders who were fluent in Arabic and Spanish asked him what had brought him there. “Christians and spices," he declared. His successful voyage was the start of 450 years of Portuguese colonialism over India. These goods were bought and sold from port to port, all of which formed links in the spice route that extended from Europe to the Far East. The Treaty of Tordesillas allowed Portugal to retain its control over the West African coastal trade and the future sea route to India that was later established by da Gama.

Many of these spices had medicinal values and would grow only in the tropics of the East that made them much sought after in the West. These spices were not just used as food-flavouring agents, but in potions, antidotes for poisons, ointments and some were even burnt as incense.

The Portuguese dominated the spice trade for nearly a century only to be broken by the Dutch, and around the beginning of 1635 by the British who established pepper plantations.

Who would have thought that the humble pepper that sits as a part of the salt-and-pepper shaker on present-day dining tables would have had such an influence over the trade history in the world?

Before the 7th century, pepper vines that would grow in the wild were transplanted in Java and Sumatra. Presently, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are the top three pepper-producing states in India. While production has more than doubled between 2008 and 2012 in Karnataka, it has fallen to less than half during the same period in Kerala, with farmers moving towards multi-cropping and faster crops such as cardamom.

Among the 1,000-odd different species in the genus Piper, the other popular ones are long pepper (pippali) and betel leaf. Black pepper grows on flowering vines up to 10m in height, that grow with the support of tall trees such as silver oak or supporting poles. The vines spread easily, wherever the shoots hit the ground. The vines bear fruit from the fourth or fifth year and continue for seven years thereafter.

Once the fruits at the base of the spikes start turning red, the spikes are harvested, allowed to dry and then the pepper fruits stripped off the spikes to get black pepper. The premium Indian varieties of black pepper are Malabar Garbled and Tellicherry Extra Bold.

Long pepper was more popular than black pepper in the ancient times as the former grew in the north-western parts of India, making it easier to access compared with black pepper that grew exclusively down south.

The heat in black pepper comes from the active ingredient piperine, while in chillies it comes from capsaicin. Piperine and the essential oil, together or separately, are used in various products in the food processing industry.

Types of pepper

Immature or partly mature peppercorns are used in manufacturing of various green pepper products such as green pepper in brine, oil or vinegar, desiccated green pepper, pickles, pastes, etc.

Black pepper is obtained from the still-unripe green berries (drupes) that are put in hot water briefly and then dried in the sun or using machines, during which the outer coat shrinks and becomes black.

White pepper is obtained from the mature fruit. It is soaked in brine for a week and when the outer skin decomposes, it is peeled off to obtain the inner seed.

Sichuan pepper belongs to a totally different family and is not related to black peppercorns. Similarly, pink peppercorns are also unrelated to the black pepper family.

Black pepper is considered a basic food seasoning in combination with salt, and possibly the only spice placed on the table to add to food at the time of eating. Peugeot, the French company famous for its cars, has been making pepper mills for longer than it has been making cars. Pepper mills can be adjusted to grind pepper to a desired size, whether it’s coarser for steak or a fine powder to garnish a soup.

A steaming hot and spicy pepper rasam (milagu rasam) is the South Indian equivalent of chicken soup and a perfect recipe when the throat is sore and one feels the onset of flu. It effectively clears up the sinuses and relieves flu-like symptoms. Whole and ground pepper are liberally used in many curries and rice dishes, to add flavour and spice. Ground pepper is a part of some of the curry powder formulations. Peppercorn sauce traditionally prepared by reducing cream and addition of black pepper is served with filet mignon, rack of lamb or chicken dishes.

White pepper finds a better fit in white sauces. It is also the choice of pepper for cream soups, mashed potatoes, and Thai and Chinese cuisine.

One of the signature dishes of Mangalorean restaurants such as Trishna (Mumbai) and Mahesh Lunch Home (Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Dubai) is crabs with butter-pepper-garlic, which amply showcases this spice from the south.

The book Ayurvedic Healing Cuisine by Rajesh Johri gives a recipe for black peppercorn tea, which is said to be useful in reducing the mucus in the respiratory system and also aids in reducing fever. To make this tea, boil 15 peppercorns in two cups of water until the water is reduced to half cup. This tea can be sweetened with some raw sugar. Black peppercorn powder with some ghee and honey or raw sugar consumed daily is said to be good to provide relief from cough.

A doctor turned nutritional consultant, culinary trainer, food writer and columnist, who’s learning to grow the foods she likes to eat, Nandita Iyer lives in Bengaluru and is mom to a five-year-old gourmand son.

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