Every so often, working at the University has some unusual benefits to it. One of the recent ones was opportunity to attend a lecture (and book tour stop) about the history and production of pepper. That ubiquitous spice that hangs out with the salt on every table, which is barely thought of these days.
The book was written by a retired professor from the School of Hospitality of Tourism, Joe Barth. (Now part of the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics ’cause with enough money, you can get a whole college named after you.) Full disclosure, I met Joe over 20 yrs ago when I was his IT person and he was actively teaching. I no longer support that college, and he has retired, but I remembered him as an interesting speaker, so I was confident that he would not make a 2 hour talk about pepper boring.
I was absolutely right. He’s an engaging speaker, and I’d say we spent almost an hour on the history of mentions of pepper (back to the earliest papyruses! 1550 BCE in a medical guide (Ebers Papyrus) And allllll the way through history, as those of us who hang out in medieval and renaissance cooking well know), and how it informed the spice trade along the silk road and various countries aiming to take over other countries to get a chunk of that sweet sweet spice money pie. His research claims that pepper was the most traded spice in history, and I believe it.
Other tidbits that I found fascinating from the talk.. most foods are fairly bland on their own, and humans like some zip in their food. (Most humans at least.. pungency trips off our endorphins and let’s face it.. endorphins are literally happy making.) There’s only 3 broad things that can be grown in Europe natively that are pungent. Garlic (allicin), mustard and horseradish (both containing allyl isothiocyanate.. probably why I dislike both of them, I’d no idea they have the same chemical compound!) Everything else that we use to spice things up come from tropical places and had to be imported. Which makes it expensive, as we well know from medieval studies. Spices are a show of wealth. Even more so than silk and gold, because you consume them. You still have gold after you work it, spices? Poof, gone in a fine meal.
True peppers (green, black, white and red pepper) are all the same plant, Piper nigrum. The four different varieties are different ripeness of the berries when they are harvested, and the nature of the beast makes it impossible to harvest mechanically. Every peppercorn you’ve ever used was harvested by hand. Even in 2020. Amazing, and crazy. Up very tall trees (pepper is a vine and they are trained to grow up a tree, or post), generally via sketchy bamboo ‘ladder’ (mostly a stick with spikes) and I got a little shuddery just watching it via video. India still grows pepper traditionally (intercropped, high quality, lower yields), Vietnam has gone the factory farm route (monocropped, higher yields, lower quality, required fertilizer and irrigation), and is the largest producer of pepper currently.
The two other pepper varieties I’m familiar with in medieval cooking are cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba) and long pepper (Piper longam). Both part of the pepper family, but different species. There’s a great many other things colloquially referred to as peppers that have nothing to do with the piper family. Chili peppers spring to mind immediately (capsicum), but there’s also grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) which was sometimes referred to as melegueta pepper, alligator pepper (Aframomum danielli), Sichuan pepper (various Xanthothylum species) and pink pepper (Schinus molle)
It was a great talk, we did some pepper tasting (that blows your palette out for the evening, lemme tell you. I had no idea that cubeb pepper was SO wintergreen!) and I’m really looking forward to digging into the book in more detail. (Of course I got a book! Autographed and everything!)