Salt and black pepper – the two spices every kitchen needs. Salt is a mineral, but black pepper grows on a shrub. It actually starts out as a berry on a flowering vine, much like a grape. When plucked and dried, they become black and shriveled, and called “peppercorns.” The story of how it became the most popular spice in the world begins in Southern India.
Black pepper takes the world by storm
Known as piper nigrum, black pepper grew only in Kerala. However, it made its way to ancient Egypt, where mummies have been found with peppercorns stuffed into their nostrils. Greece and Rome used pepper as well, given its references in ancient texts. India must have traded with the Mediterranean, though historians still don’t know much about the two region’s early relationship.
By 40 BCE, Roman traders carried black pepper and other spices to Alexandria. It became so important that when Rome negotiated a truce with the Visigoths in 410 BCE, they agreed to pay the invaders 3,000 pounds of pepper. Muslim and Arab nations took over the trade when the Roman empire fell, and charged exorbitant prices, because Europe was willing to pay. To protect the spice’s source, traders even spread stories about how dragons and poisonous snakes guarded groves of peppercorns, and that to harvest them, farmers had to burn the trees. This, the traders said, was what gave peppercorns their black color.
Pepper becomes more common
It only took several hundred years before Europe attempted to find a new source. When European explorers set off for new lands, they hoped to find spices or new partners to trade with. When Columbus came across chili peppers, he loaded up his ship and brought them back, only to realize these peppers had a much different taste. Vasco da Gama found more success when he sailed around Africa to India. The Portuguese gained majority control over spice trade. It didn’t last, as older traders kept up their imports, and the Dutch and English prevented a Portuguese monopoly.
With black pepper making up 70% of the spice trade, middleman suppliers increased, which meant prices went down. While pepper had traditionally been a luxury item, the lower classes could finally afford it. It became integrated in famous spice blends, like garam masala, and a kitchen staple. Vietnam currently leads in black pepper production.
In terms of nutritional foods to eat, black pepper is impressive. It adds in digestion and possess both antibacterial and antioxidants qualities. It has some unusual benefits, as well, like deterring ants from infesting a kitchen and making clothes brighter in the wash. With its warming qualities, black pepper can even loosen tight muscles when you rub it on your skin mixed with oil. For centuries, black pepper has been used for medicinal purposes like this. In the 5th century, recipes for eye treatment included salves with black pepper, though we can’t recommend rubbing pepper in your eye at this time. The source of pepper’s health benefits might be found in “piperine,” an alkaloid. It’s being studied for its potential in increasing the body’s absorption of crucial vitamins and minerals.
While black pepper is the most popular spice in the world, vanilla is the most expensive.