& COOKING ARTICLE
pepper, piper nigum, the world's most widely
used spice is indigenous to the rain forests of Kerala.
From very ancient times this priced spice has played
an important role in promoting trade between the East
and the West. Pepper had a colorful history as it followed
the trade routes to the west.
the earliest days of navigation nomadic Arabs and ancient
Phoenicians were trading with southwest India. During
the early pre-Christian era sea trade between the Middle
East and India was in the hands of Arabs. They transported
spices, incense and oils from the East by land as well
as through the Persian Gulf to Arabia. Southern Arabia
became the great spice emporium of the ancient world.
seamen of Ptolemaic Egypt were terrified to risk a long
voyage close to the Arab controlled shoreline of India.
During the reign of Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III, seaports
were built along the shores of the Red Sea. Around 116
BC, while Ptolemy VII was the king, a Greek sailor managed
to sail with the winds and reach India's southwest coast,
marking the beginnings of a thriving Egyptian, and later
Roman, spice trade. Ptolemy XI bequeathed Alexandria
to the Romans in 80 BC and by 40 AD it had become not
only the greatest commercial center in the world but
also the pre-eminent emporium for spices.
rapid growth of Roman trade with southern India in the
First, Second and Third centuries AD led to the introduction
of a direct route from Red Sea ports to the ancient
port of Muziris (Kodungalloor) in central Kerala. Roman
ships left in July, at the height of the monsoon season
and returned back with the reverse northwest monsoons
in November. They used the most southerly course even
in the worst monsoons, especially as the sighting of
the Lakshadweep Islands two hundred miles from the mainland
gave them an excellent guide to their destination.
Roman trade began to weaken during the Third century
AD. Arab and Ethiopian middlemen began to take control
of the trade. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Arabs
held the control of the spice trade for a long time.
By this time Venice had become a great sea power and
controlled the Adriatic Sea. Arab traders took their
merchandise to Alexandria and the Venetians dominated
in the distribution of pepper and other spices from
the Middle East to Western Europe. Major Middle East
market centers were Constantinople (now Istanbul) and
Alexandria. With these virtual monopolies the pepper
prices sky rocketed and only the rich were able to afford
it. Pepper was sold for exorbitant prices all over Western
higher prices frustrated other European nations and
the quest for a new source of pepper fuelled the enthusiasm
of the great explorers of the Renaissance. During the
latter half of the Fifteenth century the Spanish and
the Portuguese built stronger ships and ventured abroad
in search of a new ocean route to the spice producing
countries of the east. Portugal was convinced that India
could be reached by sailing around the coast of Africa.
The famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived
in Kerala in 1498 which marked the beginning of the
Portuguese dominance of the lucrative spice trade from
India. The conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in
1453 had already marked the decline of Venice. The advent
of the Portuguese through the newly discovered ocean
route totally ended the Arab and Venetian monopoly of
the pepper trade. In the following years, Lisbon became
one of the wealthiest cities in Europe.
Dutch full of energy and zeal after gaining their freedom
from Spain in the Sixteenth century made their first
voyages to the East Indies during 1595 through 1598.
In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was founded. Then
came the British East India Company in 1600 under the
royal charter granted by the queen Elizabeth I. By 1663
the Dutch gained trade supremacy in the east by defeating
the Portuguese. Conflict erupted between the Dutch and
English in the following years and the English East
India Company eventually broke a two hundred year Dutch
monopoly. Today the monopolies are long broken and black
pepper is freely traded in world commodity markets.
pepper, piper longum, was one of the most valuable
Indian exports of ancient times. In Sanskrit it is called
'pippali' and black pepper is called 'maricha'.
In Europe long pepper was used as medicine. Ancient
Greek traders thought that black pepper was a variety
of long pepper and called it 'peperi' and in
Latin it became 'piper'. Black pepper's Sanskrit
name was unknown in the west and it became piper
nigum in Latin.
consumption of pepper grew astonishingly in the days
of the Roman Empire and pepper became the most common
spice in medieval Europe. Before the days of refrigeration
and the invention of other methods of preservation,
pepper and salt were the only preservatives available
to man. It was a status symbol of fine cookery and a
description of a lavish feast invariably mentioned pepper,
if not other spices. Recipes for pepper sauces even
appeared in Roman novels of the First century. Pepper
reigned as a paramount spice for several centuries.
The rise of French cuisine during the Seventeenth century
put an end to over spicing of food and milder spices
and herbs slowly replaced black pepper. The price of
pepper dropped dramatically with the decrease in demand.
By the middle of the Nineteenth century pepper prices
dropped to six cents a kilogram in the world markets.
the drop in its price pepper continues remain a favorite
spice. The world today consumes as much black pepper
as all other spices combined. It is used in one way
or other in most cuisines and it is used to prepare
just about every kind of dish, including desserts! The
aroma of pepper comes from essential oils while the
pungency in pepper comes form the presence of an alkaloid
trade between Southern India and South East Asia, Malaysia
and Indonesia was prevalent in the early centuries,
which facilitated the transplantation of pepper. The
Portuguese transplanted pepper to tropical regions under
their control. Today pepper is cultivated in the tropical
regions near the equator around the globe. There are
pepper plantations in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Brazil
and Sri Lanka. India and Indonesia together produce
about half of the pepper traded in the world markets.
grows on climbing evergreen perennial vines with large
leaves. This woody climber may reach heights of thirty-five
feet by means of its aerial roots. It has broad shiny
green leaves and white flowers that grow on slender
spikes. The flowers yield small green berries that almost
resemble a bunch of tiny grapes. As the berries ripen
they begin to turn yellowish red in color.
pepper plant requires a long rainy season and fairly
high temperatures as well as partial shade for best
growth. The tropical climate and the heavy monsoons
of Kerala are ideal for this plant. New plants are produced
from cuttings that are planted near trees or poles for
support for the climber. In two to five years the plant
begins to produce berries. Pepper plants live for as
long as forty years. In Kerala these creepers can be
spotted in backyards clinging to areca and coconut palms
and mango and jackfruit trees. In pepper plantations
they are generally grown on wooden poles. Pepper plants
are sometimes interspersed in tea and coffee plantations.
is marketed in four different colors: black, white,
red and green. It is interesting to note that all four
varieties can be harvested from the same pepper plant
by changing the time of harvest and processing method.
To produce black pepper, the berries are picked when
they just start to turn yellow. Black peppercorns are
the sun-dried, slightly unripe fruits of the pepper
vine. Some farmers store the harvested peppercorns at
room temperature while others dip them in hot water
for about ten minutes after the harvest. As a result
of fermentation the color of the berries turn black.
In Kerala it is still dried in direct sunlight. Sun
drying the pepper berries just before they are fully
ripe produces the prized variety. At this stage the
berries have an orange yellow color and excellent flavor.
less potent white pepper comes from the same fruit that
is picked when it is riper. The lighter color is accomplished
by removing the outer skin of the berries. The ripe
fruits are either kept in moist heaps for two to three
days or kept in jute sacks submerged in running water
for seven to fifteen days, depending on the region of
production. Washing and rubbing or trampling removes
the softened outer skin. The skinless berries are sun-dried
to produce white pepper. White pepper has a different
flavor but it retains the pungency of black pepper.
pepper is harvested early, pickled in salt or vinegar
and then dried at high temperature or in a vacuum, it
becomes green pepper. Since berries are unripe, green
pepper is highly aromatic with almost a herbal flavor,
but less pungent. When the same kind of processing is
applied to fully ripe berries it yields red peppercorns.
pepper trade grades the spice based on its country of
origin. The Indian grades are Malabar and Thalasseri
(Tellicherry) and they are very aromatic. Kochi
(Cochin) is the major pepper trade center in
India. Pepper plants in Indonesia produce smaller berries.
They are grayish black in color and have less aroma
compared to Indian pepper. Pepper from Malaysia is mild
and fruity. Brazilian pepper is very mild in taste.
is the largest producer of black pepper. Kerala, Tamilnad,
Karnataka, Nagaland and the Andaman Islands are the
areas that cultivate pepper. In the fiscal year 2000
- 2001, India exported approximately 19,250 metric tons
of black pepper, which accounted for over twenty per
cent of the nation's revenues from total spice exports.
Kerala accounted for about ninety-five per cent of the
pepper farmland and ninety-seven per cent of the pepper
production in India.
order to protect their market and to enhance the price
of the spices and also to discourage competitors, Arab
traders artfully withheld the true sources of the spices
they transported from Kerala. According to a Fourteenth
century book, The Nature of Things, pepper is the seed
or fruit from a tree that grows in the lush forests
on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains in the
hottest sunshine. The pepper forests are full of snakes
that guard the trees. When fruits are ripe, people set
fire to the forest, the snakes flee and the thick flames
blacken the pepper fruits and make them sharper.
trade monopoly of the Arabs angered Emperor Marcus Aurelius
and in 176 AD he began to levy customs duty, up to twenty-five
per cent, on the import of pepper. Roman Emperor Domition
designated an area in the heart of the city as Ahorrea
Piperataria, pepper sheds, for the exclusive use
of pepper merchants.
much of the middle ages pepper was considered a symbol
of wealth and affluence. In renaissance Italy, pasta
dishes served at banquets were sprinkled with abundant
quantities of black pepper and cinnamon, as a symbol
of prosperity. Around that time, miniature ships of
precious metal, inlaid with gems and filled with spices
were used as table decorations. The princely houses
of Europe had developed a passion for pepper that led
to ostentatious display. In the Fifteenth century, Charles
the Brave of Burgundy had two hundred and eighty-nine
pounds of pepper brought to his table for his wedding
was equivalent to money and people stored it under and
lock and key. In 408 AD when Alaric, the King of Visigoths,
besieged Rome he demanded a stiff price for sparing
the city which included fine garments, gold, silver
and three thousand kilograms of pepper. A 'proper bribe'
from a merchant in Venice to a tax collector included
among other things a pound of pepper. In the early Eleventh
century King Ethelred collected toll in the form of
bags of pepper from ships that landed at Billingsgate.
In 1101 soldiers of Genoa were rewarded with one kilogram
of pepper each for their victory in a war. One of the
oldest guilds in the City of London is the Guild of
Pepperers, registered as Grosserii or wholesalers in
1328. In France a pound of pepper could free a slave.
In Germany a nickname for the rich was 'pepper sacks'.
When an English ship that sank in 1545 was raised from
the ocean in the 1980's nearly every sailor's body was
found to have a bunch of peppercorns, the most portable
valuable, in his possession.
England a pound of pepper was a commonly accepted form
of rent from land tenants. The term peppercorn
rent started off meaning that such a contract
was taken very seriously based on the cost of a given
weight of peppercorns per year, which were very expensive.
Pepper was considered as a more stable form of currency
than money. In later years pepper became cheap and a
custom of handing a single peppercorn to confirm a tenancy
came into existence. In 1973 the tributes Prince Charles
received as he took possession of the Duchy of Cornwall
included a pound of pepper.
has it that on one his trips back from Kerala, Vasco
da Gama asked the king whether he could take a pepper
stalk with him for replanting. The king, well known
for sarcasm, responded calmly, You may take our
pepper but I dont think you will be able to take
our rains',' referring to Keralas twin monsoons,
almost a prerequisite for the growth of pepper plants.
growing up in Kerala, black pepper was just another
spice for me. The perennial pepper creepers grew in
peoples backyards on areca and coconut palms,
mango trees and jackfruit trees. I knew it was also
cultivated in large plantations but in those days little
did I know of the fascinating history of black pepper.
We thought it as a mild spice that only 'foreigners'
(ancient Indian herbal medicine) physicians use pepper
in several of their medications. A homemade cure for
a bad migraine headache is a concoction of freshly crushed
black pepper cooked in milk. The pepper paste has a
strong smell but once it is smeared on the forehead
it always works like a charm. Pepper is also used in
making homemade hair oil. Coconut oil is heated in a
pan and when it is hot a tablespoon each of raw parboiled
rice and black peppercorns are added. When the rice
puffs up in the hot oil, the pan is removed and the
oil is strained. This oil has a faint smell of black
is used only sparingly in our spicy vegetarian cooking.
Strangely enough we prefer the hot red chili peppers
that the Portuguese traders introduced to us. We make
black pepper soup during the monsoon season when nearly
everyone catches a cold or cough. It is considered a
preventive measure just like chicken soup in the West.
In my childhood, leaving a set of salt and pepper shakers
on the dining table was considered an insult to the
ability of the cook to spice the food properly. Back
home the skill of a traditional cook depends on his
or her ability to judge taste with the eyes and nose.
My uncle (who was educated in England) was the only
one in our family who sprinkled pepper on top of his
eggs and we thought that he acquired this taste from
his long stay in a foreign country.
lived in the town of Aalappuza (Alleppy), some one hundred
and fifty miles away from my hometown, when my husband
was teaching at a college there. Our neighbors across
the street were pepper traders and they had their pepper
warehouses next to their home. After the harvest huge
sacks of black pepper were brought to the warehouse.
In Kerala pepper is often dried on paved roads where
heat accumulated on the road surface hastens the drying
process. After the morning rush hour traffic, workers
would spread the black pepper on the street to dry.
Our street in a residential neighborhood did not have
very heavy traffic. And it did not bother the pepper
traders if an occasional car went by over the pepper
spread, or if people walked over it to cross the street.
They always cleaned the dried pepper before packing
two and four year old boys loved riding their tricycles
over the pepper spread. They used to peek through the
window to see if the workers had spread the pepper on
the road and would come running to me amma,
the pepper is on the street, can we go biking".
They loved the smell and sound of fresh pepper berries
crushing under their tricycle wheels. They came back
soon when it got hot outside. And as the sun went down,
the workers packed the peppercorns in sacks and took
them to the warehouse. After the workers leave, servant
maids from the neighborhood would come out to pick any
left over peppercorns from the street. Pepper was dried
for a few days until it was completely dry. A few days
later another harvest arrived and the process continued
for a couple of months.
days as I stand in line at the check out counter of
a gourmet grocer with a small bottle of Tellicherry
pepper with a hefty price tag of $4.95, I often think
about the good old days. In those days there was plenty
of pepper around me, and it cost only pennies. And little
did I know then of the true value of these precious
berries from my home state.
read Ammini Ramachandran's biography <click
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