P is for Pepper

Black Gold. Texas Tea. The most valuable commodity in recent years has that nickname, and if you watched a certain TV show from the 1960s, you remember the words. But “black gold” before 1800 meant something else, something also very valuable. Futurists picked up on it, too.

The spice must flow.

Black Gold

Even today, pepper is the most traded spice in the world. It originated out of India, on the Malabar coast, although more than a third of it today comes from Vietnam. In the Silk Road days, it was so valuable that it was demanded by the Huns when they took Rome; they asked for 3000 pounds of pepper in addition to precious metals and furs. Rome lived on cinnamon and pepper, so it knew the value, too.

Accountant Luca Pacioli in his double-entry bookkeeping text explained to merchants how to list their inventory: gold coin in ducats, jewels, unpolished pointed diamonds, silverware, feather beds, and …

cases of ginger bellidi … sacks of pepper, long pepper or round pepper … so many packages of cinnamon.

Luca Pacioli’s Inventory

Calling it the Silk Road came later (tbd in letter “S”). Back in the age where the goods were carried, it was called the Spice Road.

Pepper gathered as tribute for the royals. Painting at Bridgeman Art Library.

Piper nigrum

There are some 3000 species in the Piperaceae family, the peppercorn groups, which include the piper and the peperomia. What everyone wanted was the black pepper variety.

This always happens when I read biology, especially botany. Pepper is a drupe. What’s a drupe? It’s is an indehiscent fruit in which an outer fleshy part (exocarp, or skin, and mesocarp, or flesh) surrounds a single shell (the pit, stone, or pyrena) of hardened endocarp with a seed (kernel) inside. Feel free to click away at all the OTHER words you didn’t know. Say what? It means it’s like a peach, a stone fruit.

The pepper “fruits” themselves have a “softer” outer section with a hard seed inside. Like a peach. That fruit is green when it’s not ripe. Green pepper–not to be confused with green bell peppers, just wait–green pepper drupes can be hardened without ripening, like freeze-drying or with sulfur dioxide. (yuk! but just don’t tell me, and I’ll eat it). Pickled green peppercorns can be preserved in brine, and they can be crushed, used often in Thai cuisine.

Medieval harvesting of the pepper plant. Ambroise Bare 1579, National Library of Medicine.

The National Library of Medicine which provided that cool picture, by the way, is in Bethesda, Maryland. Cool digital picture library here.

White peppercorns are the inner pits of the drupe. If a peppercorn is like a peach, think of removing all the flesh part and just having the stony pit. The white part is the stony pit. You could remove the outer flesh by softening it until it falls away. White pepper is crushed and used in Chinese and other Asian cuisines.

When the fruit ripens, it turns red. Red peppercorns can be preserved in brine or vinegar and then dried to be ground up.

But forget all that red, white, and green stuff. The mamma-jamma that everybody wanted was black pepper. Black was the optimal variation of the spice, the most pungent, the most tart of the peppercorn treatment. Black peppercorns are made from the green, unripe drupes (the whole peach/peppercorn) and boiling them , which cleans them and ruptures the cell walls. Dry them and they’re ready for grinding on everything you eat. They could also simply be dried without boiling, in the heat of the South Asian pan-tropical sun, but it did take longer. The “skin” turns black.

Close-up of a piper nigrum dried pod.

The active ingredient everyone lusted after was piperine. It’s alkaloid, pungent, and it works on the transient receptor potential channel ion channels, TRPV1 and TRPA1, on nociceptors, the pain-sensing nerve cells. In other words, your body can feel pepper in a way that it doesn’t feel other things. So herbalists have put it into various medicinal compounds, and scientists have been dissecting it for as long as they’ve had dissecting tools. Because it’s the most traded spice in the world, of course they did.

The Periplus of the Pepper Spice Trade

Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, wikipedia.

Since today is also vocabulary day, P is for Periplus as well. A periplus is a kind of map. It lists all the ports and coastal places, like an itinerary. It’s from Latin and Greek words which mean “sailing around.” All those salty seadogs had a periplus for where to find the ports that sold the pepper. (The periplus for the port has the pepper that is pungent; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.)

The port most known for pepper was called Muziris in Greek, Muchiri in Sanskrit. There is a Muziris spider, so you can draw your own conclusions there. Pliny the Elder said Muziris on the Malabar coast was the “first emporium of India.” The traders went there for the pepper, although they could also pick up other stuff, like pearls, sapphires, Chinese silk, and tortoise shells.

The spice could flow either through sailors making their way up the Red Sea or through the Kushans north and through the Oxus plain up to Constantinople. Either way could get to Rome and Europe, though once the Goths and the Ostrigoths had charge of Southern Europe, traders went the land route. Once the Italians–Venetians and Genoese–were back in play, they could sail back to India again. The Portuguese and Spanish didn’t appreciate the inability to get through the Mediterranean, so they took the long route around the coast of Africa (see last year’s post, N is for Navigator).

They were all looking for routes to and fro the Malabar Coast. After all, if Columbus had read Marco Polo’s tales and dreamed of a way to China, when he got to the Caribbean and thought he’d found the trade route, he didn’t call the natives “Chinese” — he called them “Indians.” They were looking for spice as much as they were looking for silk.

Friends and Neighbors of the Peppercorn

Since black pepper was the most valuable commodity in the world at one time, you may well imagine that many attempts to find substitutes have ensued. One similar but less valuable version back in the day was long pepper. Greek botanist Theophrastus knew about both of them, but he learned about long peppers from India, and they are mentioned in ancient Indian medicinal books, the Ayurveda. Mostly medicinal, not so much tasty.

Long pepper, also from India, wikipedia.

When the European explorers started hacking through the undergrowth in the Mesoamerican jungles, you can well imagine they were also looking for that peppercorn. They found multiple varieties of things they called “peppers,” hoping maybe to cash in.

They did in, a way. Because the New World was full of varieties of capsicum plants: green peppers (also red, yellow, and orange in their ripening cycles), and all the chile peppers. Those chile peppers have pretty much replaced black pepper in our minds today. When we think of “spicy” , we don’t think black pepper first. Spicy upstarts!

But not black gold. And the spice still must flow.

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