Most of us know Pepper as the omnipresent seasoning ingredient, commonly found as a black or off-white powder and sits in everybody’s kitchen shelves. It’s the dried fruit of a flower, and nowadays is cultivated extensively throughout India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Brazil. So what is it about the spice that’s so hard to contain? Well, the price.
Pepper is a stimulant that has been highly valued since the beginning of trade itself. In fact, the search for Pepper spurred the founding of new trade routes in the 15th century, where Pepper was traded ounce for ounce with precious metals, and not too far off from Gold! In the middle ages, Pepper was used as a currency, used to purchase other commodities, household items and even pay rent. At that time, almost all the Pepper in Europe came from India’s Malabar region (it’s traditional origin where we at Regency still source our black peppercorns from to this day). Once the East India Company and the British Empire’s influence grew, Pepper was exported back to European waters by the ton – the turning point at which Pepper transformed from a luxury to an everyday item. Pepper is now commonly used across the board in all cuisines, as it adds a complementary flavour to most foods.
But, the history of Pepper far outdates even these times. The Natural History, a Roman encyclopaedia that has survived to this date, tells us how the early Roman Empire too imported Pepper in small ships from the Malabar coast in India – transporting it once a year up the Red sea, then on foot and barge to Alexandria, and Italy and finally shipped to Rome. The author, Pliny, complains that “There is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces [the silver currency used at the time]!”
It’s also rather bizarre once you consider it, how Pepper came about to be the fruit that we use so readily. It doesn’t look particularly pleasing, and also isn’t sweet or otherwise traditionally attractive, nor does it smell great. None of it’s factors upon close examination conclude to it being the fashionable spice of the millennium. Yet, all over the world, traders traversed the seas to import it all the way from India.
Black Pepper (and more likely Long Pepper) was also often recommended for its medicinal properties in history: further putting strains on the price and quality that it had to adhere to. It was believed to be a cure to all manner of diseases and problems: constipation, gangrene, heart disease, hernia, insomnia, liver problems, sunburn and tooth decay just to name a few. There is currently no medicinal evidence to support that any of the treatments have a benefit, however it is still widely used in traditional Indian medicine as a home remedy for relief from sore throats, coughs etc.
Nowadays, almost all regional cuisines have adopted Pepper into their repertoire, resulting in spice blends such as garam masala, ras el hanout, five spice powder, Cajun blends and others around the world. As a result of centuries of popularity, Pepper is now cultivated across the seas, and the most commonly used Pepper comes from Vietnam (which now produces upwards of 30% of the world’s Pepper consumption each year), however it is not without its perils. The yield has been known to fail, creating shortages, and the country almost exclusively exports the entirety of its produce.
Peppercorns, by sheer monetary value are the most traded spice in the world, and have in the past (such as in 1998) accounted for as high as 39% of all spice imports. This figure fluctuates dramatically year on year, for example 5 years later and this figure was down to 20%… a few years later and it had rebounded up again. It’s no wonder that traders, spice sellers and producers are constantly on edge by the mythical King of Spices.