Focus on Food: Pepper, the King of Spices

I’ve lost track of when, but somewhere along the line at one of our library book sales, I acquired an intriguing possibility of a book called Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice (Marjorie Shaffer). I’m not a “foodie,” but I like food, and its history I find rather fascinating. Political events, geography, weather, personal fortunes—up or down—and more all played a role in the travels and temptations of various foods, including spices from tiny plants on the other side, to many, of the known world. Most of us know by now that wars were fought over spices, but I didn’t learn until yesterday some exciting and curious facts about this particular zing. It seems to be underrated because it doesn’t appear to get much press but, if you think about it, has any other spice gotten its own shaker to pair with salt? In kitchens the world over?

From the book—which I will definitely be talking about again in these pages—as well as the mighty interweb, I’ve gathered a few tidbits for you to mull over, then tell friends and family all about. If you haven’t already, give pepper a go!

  • Black pepper comes from the dried fruit peppercorn (piper nigrum) and grows on a perennial flowering vine.
  • These peppercorns aren’t actually spices, but rather fruit.
  • Guess which country is the biggest consumer of pepper? In 2018, Vietnam, India and the United States together made up a combined 41% of global consumption. The United States imported $671 million worth of pepper in 2009, and that number has climbed each year since.
  • About 50% of a typical restaurant’s spice usage is attributed to—you guessed it: pepper.
  • When the Visigoths sacked Rome, their ransom demands included gold and silver—and 3,000 pounds of black pepper.
  • Piper nigrum from an 1832 print (Detail courtesy Wikimedia; click image)

    Pepper is known as the King of Spices: While some today treat pepper in a ho hum sort of manner, they don’t often realize its pedigree goes waaaaay back and is one of the most traded spices in the world. As was the case with other spices, pepper was extremely expensive to buy and ship, in this case because it came only from India. Today it remains a widely traded spice and may be found in the most ordinary of groceries for just a few dollars.

  • “The extinction of the dodo is related to the pepper trade[.]” Marjorie Shaffer writes that pepper traders on their way to Asia stopped on Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, in search of food. Whether with intent or not, these traders introduced a variety of animals to the island and the flightless birds seemed to have succumbed under the invasive species’ presence, for by 1690 they were seen no more.
  • A few thousand years ago, pepper was used as an aid in curing disease and various maladies; it was later that it became popular as a condiment.
  • The branching vines of the pepper plant take several years to mature, and can reach up to thirty feet.
  • Harvesting begins when one or two of the peppercorn fruits begin to turn red. If they are allowed to reach full maturity, they lose their pungent odor and drop off. Likewise, people tend to prefer grinding their peppercorns as they use the spice, rather than keeping a large stock of powder, because the shells retain freshness. Once exposed to air, pepper’s flavor begins to fade.
Roman era trade route: from India across to and around the Arabian Peninsula, then overland until reaching the Mediterranean and across to Rome. (Map courtesy Wikimedia; click image)

Sources

Chef Zieg, Spice Master. “21 Black Pepper Facts You Didn’t Know.” The Chef Zieg Blog, accessed November 20, 2020, http://www.chefzieg.com/21-black-pepper-facts-you-didnt-know/

Intrado: Globe News Wire. “World Pepper Market 2020: Historic review of 2007—2018 with Projections to 2025.” Research and Markets, accessed November 21, 2020, https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/02/05/1980349/0/en/World-Pepper-Market-2020-Historic-Review-of-2007-2018-with-Projections-to-2025.html

Mattison, Lindsay D. “10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Pepper.” Taste of Home, last modified February 7, 2020, https://www.tasteofhome.com/collection/things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-pepper/

Shaffer, Marjorie. Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

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Added Note: This entry was edited to include elements (e.g. tags, images) not entered when initially published.

3 thoughts on “Focus on Food: Pepper, the King of Spices

  1. Interesting history and facts! I love pepper. There are few foods I don’t add pepper to. My father put salt and pepper on his cantaloupe; I draw the line there.

    I use so much pepper that recently I purchased a “restaurant” size container (5 lbs) so I could easily refill my 3 oz grocery store dispenser. Much cheaper!

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