A History of Pepper
Black pepper comes from a flowering vine in the Piperaceae family that is native to South India and has been used since ancient times. One of the most popular spices ever, it can be found on nearly every dinner table today and has historically been treasured not only for it’s culinary uses but also for it’s medicinal uses.
In early Europe as well as the Middle East, most of the pepper came from India's Malabar region. The peppercorns which are ultimately ground down to the tiny particles of black pepper that we all know and love were a much coveted spice and were so valuable that they were commonly used as commodity money and often called “black gold”.
The use of black pepper actually goes back to prehistoric times. Peppercorns were used in Ancient Egyptian mummification ceremonies as far back as 1213 BC. Pepercorns were even found in the nostrils of Ramses II! In 4th century Greece, pepper was hard to come by as trade routes were lengthy and only the well off could use the spice. By the time of the early Roman Empire, however, shorter trade routes were established and the price came down considerably making pepper available to more people and a favorite in Roman cookery.
During the middle ages open trading with the East broke down. Pepper rose in price. Trade in pepper, as well as many others, was monopolized by a few of the Italian city states. In 1498, the Portuguese forged new trade routes around Africa to India by sea and took over much of the spice trade, often by actually using military force to secure the areas where spices were grown. But, nothing lasts forever and by the 17th century they had lost most of the land where pepper was grown to the English and Dutch.
It wasn’t just the Europeans that liked pepper, though. It was known to the Chinese as far back as the 2nd century BC and by the 12th century it was very popular among the wealthy, often being used in place of Sichuan pepper in recipes.
In addition to its uses as a spice for food, pepper is also used in Unani, Siddha, and Ayurvedic medicine. Historically it has been used as a salve for eye problems, to help stop diarrhea, nausea and indigestion and as a treatment for toothache, gangrene, earache, hernia, and even heart disease!
Peppercorns, from which black pepper is derived, accounts for 20 percent of spice imports, making it the most widely traded spice in terms of monetary value. Once grown only in South India, in the 16th century cultivation of the plant spread to Madagascar, Malaysia, Java, Sunda, Sumatra and other parts of Southeast Asia. Today’s major producers are Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Thailand, China and India.