Pepper: A History of the World's Most Influential Spice

Pepper: A History of the World's Most Influential Spice

by Marjorie Shaffer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250048660
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/05/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 508,254
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

MARJORIE SHAFFER has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, and Popular Science magazine. She was a business reporter for Reuters and a former Knight science journalism fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A graduate of Brown University, she received a Master of Science degree in biology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a science writer and editor at New York University School of Medicine. She lives in New York City.

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A History of the World's Most Influential Spice

By Marjorie Shaffer

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Marjorie Shaffer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-02100-7


Meet the Pipers


"Pepper is the bride around which everyone dances."

— Jacob Hustaert, 1664, A Dutch East India Company Governor Of Sri Lanka.

For most of human history, pepper wasn't easy to obtain, an essential fact that led this spice to become a major force in world history. Black pepper is indigenous to India, thousands of miles from the ports of Europe. Traders had to get to the source of pepper, and that obsession led to the dawn of global trade.

Like a botanic Helen of Troy, pepper launched a thousand ships. This fiery berry from a tropical vine, a mere wrinkled ball of flavor, dragged Europe out of its medieval torpor into the cosmopolitan trading network of the Indian Ocean. Although there were other exotic spices that captivated the Western world, none was as widely used as pepper, and none can claim a wider impact on world history.

Over the centuries, pepper has become a culinary ingredient in almost every culture. Think Indian pepper chicken and shrimp, French steak au poivre, Italian pecorino pepato cheese, German pfeffernüsse cookies, and the dozens of spice blends that incorporate pepper, including most famously quatre épices from France and garam masala from India. Nearly every kind of meat and many cheeses are enlivened by pepper, and it can add a delicious sparkle to desserts and fruit. A commando spice, pepper is a take-charge kind of condiment that refuses to be subtle or delicate.

No one knows when the first human being bit into a peppercorn and decided it would taste good on a piece of meat or in a vegetable stew, but in the West it was the ancient Romans who apparently first made pepper an integral part of their meals. Food was only part of the reason for pepper's esteem; health played an equally important role. In the Roman Empire, pepper was the equivalent of aspirin, seen as the cure-all for aches and pains and many other conditions. If you had a cough or a fever, or were bitten by a poisonous snake, it was common practice to be given a drink or a salve laced with pepper. Dioscorides, a famous first-century Greek physician who lived during the time of Nero, wrote an herbal guide that was still being consulted in the sixteenth century. He praised the spice's wonderful properties: "The virtue of all peppers ... is to heat, to move a man to make water, to digest, to draw to, to drive away by resolution, and to scour away those things that darken the eyesight."

Dioscorides influenced generations of physicians. It was he who recommended putting pepper in a drink or a salve to help calm the shakes accompanying fevers; to cure the bites of venomous animals; and to fight coughs and "all diseases about the breast, whether it be licked in or be received in drink." The spice, he noted, could be chewed with raisins to "draw down thin phlegm out of the head," drunk with leaves of the "bay tree" to "driveth away gnawing and quite dissolveth it; and mixed with sauces to help digestion." Pepper could even help remove "morphews" and other foulness in the skin by mixing it with saltpeter.

* * *

The Romans were hardly the first to embrace pepper as an elixir. Long before Roman galleys crossed the Indian Ocean, the Greeks, Chinese, and south Asians had been incorporating pepper into tonics to fight numerous conditions. Belief in the spice's considerable utility is reflected in India's ancient Ayurvedic system of medicine, which is more than three thousand years old. In Sanskrit, black pepper is known as maricha or marica, meaning an ability to dispel poison, and it is taken to aid digestion, improve appetite, ease pain, and to cure colds, coughs, and intermittent fevers, among other ailments.

During medieval times in Europe, pepper was firmly established as a culinary ingredient, and it was also a vital part of the apothecary trade, as the frequent references to the spice as a "drug" attest. An essay published in England in 1588 noted that the mixture of three peppers known as Diatrion piperon was famous for its ability to help "conconction, to discuss wind, to do good against the cold affects of the stomack, and yet not to heat the liver or the blood, wherein consisteth as singular propertie of this medicine." A book published in England in 1596 advised that pepper was "wholesome for the brain," and another published a year later recommended the spice alone or combined with other substances for conditions ranging from headaches and gas to leprous facial sores and tumors. Even at the turn of the seventeenth century, the naturalists who wrote these guides still relied heavily on Greek and Roman sources for their information about Asian plants.

Many of the properties attributed to pepper some four hundred years ago sound strange today, but modern scientists who are studying the spice are finding that it does improve human health. The spice is still used for a variety of medicinal purposes in Asia, especially in India, and if scientific investigations continue to be successful, pepper may eventually play a role in Western medicine as well, especially in the treatment of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, a topic discussed in the last chapter of this book.

* * *

Black pepper's renown made it a must-have item for the wealthy, who had a mania for the spice in the Middle Ages. In those days, pepper was guarded by servants in royal households and kept in the private wardrobes of the rich. It was considered a privilege to cook with pepper. Few dishes did not benefit from large quantities, which might be considered stomach-churning today. But for most people, pepper was too expensive — in the year 1439, a pound of pepper was roughly equal to more than two days' wages in England. Meanwhile, pepper could be traded for gold and silver, and was actually used to pay for labor and goods. Pfeffersack (pepper sack) was a common expression that referred to a merchant who made handsome profits from the pepper trade. Europe itself offered relatively few indigenous spices, mainly saffron (also very expensive) and cumin.

An incredible hunger for pepper and the money it could bring spurred residents of an entire continent to risk adventure on foreign oceans and in foreign lands, and it is within this context that the story of pepper really begins. In the fifteenth century, pepper was the reason why Europeans searched obsessively for an all-ocean route to India. Although they also craved other spices, it was pepper that unleashed the age of discovery, when Europeans hoped to find a way to Asia aboard their own ships, cutting out the Arab middlemen in the pepper trade to earn all of its enormous profits for themselves. Columbus carried peppercorns with him on his 1492 voyage. He wanted to make sure that wherever he made landfall, the natives could tell him where to find pepper.

Like a giant magnet, pepper pulled the world to India, the land of black pepper. Although the Europeans loved pepper, they were the last to join the pepper trade in the Indian Ocean — Gujaratis from the northwest coast of India, Bengalis, Tamils, Arabs, Southeast Asians, and Chinese had been trading the spice for hundreds of years. The great Treasure Fleet of the Ming Dynasty, which sailed as far as the east coast of Africa in the early part of the fifteenth century, made a beeline for the southwestern coast of India to purchase pepper. Great port cities in Malaysia and Indonesia were built on the pepper trade, and thrived long before the Europeans entered the Indian Ocean. These Islamic cities were cosmopolitan places where Southeast Asians, Bengalis, Persians, Arabs, and Chinese lived. But the Europeans were a different sort of customer. They wanted to control the pepper trade, and that meant conquering the port city suppliers, setting in motion a new chapter in the history of pepper and empire.

At the end of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sail to India when Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and crossed the Indian Ocean, an incredible feat. The Portuguese then spent the next one hundred years trying to gain control of the pepper trade in India and Asia. When they failed, the Dutch and the English attempted to take it over in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The history of black pepper is bound to the two companies that are synonymous with the evils of colonialism, the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company or VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), and the spice gave birth to the insidious opium trade when the Dutch first offered the narcotic as payment for pepper grown along the Malabar Coast of India. There was a reason why Voltaire wrote that after the year 1500 there was no pepper obtained in India that was "not dyed red with blood." The rivalry between the northern European mercantile companies penetrated almost all of the pepper ports in Asia, but most notably those in Java and Sumatra in Indonesia, and deepened the trading links that had already existed in Asia. The so-called "country trade," or intra-Asia trade, was especially important to the VOC.

By the time the Americans entered the scene in the nineteenth century, they realized that the pepper trade couldn't be conquered. These sensible businessmen went about making their own fortunes from pepper, and the import duties on the spice helped shore up the economy of a young nation. When piracy imperiled the pepper trade, President Andrew Jackson sent a U.S. warship to Sumatra, resulting in the first official armed U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia.

Many people in the West today associate Sumatra with coffee, but long before coffee there was pepper. This large island that straddles the equator and nearly touches mainland Asia was the world's largest producer of pepper for more than two hundred years; hundreds of millions of pounds of pepper poured out of the numerous ports that lined Sumatra's shores. This island played the lead role in the pepper trade, and its fate influenced the history of India and Southeast Asia.

* * *

Medieval Europeans who had never seen pepper growing in the wild entertained some fanciful notions of its origins. According to Bartholomew the Englishman, who lived in the thirteenth century and wrote encyclopedias, the spice grew on trees in forests guarded by serpents. Its black color was the byproduct of fire. "Pepper is the seed of the fruit of a tree that groweth in the south side of the hill Caucasus in the strong heat of the sun," he wrote. "And serpents keep the woods that pepper groweth in. And when the woods of pepper are ripe, men of that country set them on fire, and chase away the serpents by violence of fire. And by such burning the grain of pepper that was white by nature is made black."

This persistent myth wasn't dispelled until more Europeans began traveling to India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and could see for themselves how pepper grew. An early account was given by the brilliant Portuguese physician and naturalist Garcia da Orta, who lived in Goa and published a profoundly influential treatise on the medicinal plants of India in 1563. But even da Orta believed that black and white pepper came from different climbing plants. Many scholars have published Orta's drawing of a pepper plant, which has a strangely modern sensibility, resembling the paintings of early twentieth-century cubists. Some fifty years before Orta's treatise was published, an Italian named Ludovico di Varthema is said to have vividly portrayed the pepper plantations in Calicut, a port city on the southwest coast of India, in his own account about his travels in Asia, published in 1510 to much acclaim.

One of the European travelers to the East who was delighted to see a pepper garden, and who accurately described pepper, was Peter Mundy. An astute Englishman from Cornwall, Mundy was a factor, or merchant, for the East India Company during the early seventeenth century. He spoke Italian, French, and Spanish, in addition to English, and traveled widely in Europe, India, and China, filling his journals with charming drawings. Everything interested him: pepper gardens; the clothing of Chinese and Japanese women; fishes in the Indian Ocean; houses, boats, and royal processions in Sumatra; hairstyles in Madagascar. He was a curious and keen observer who drew what was novel to him at a time when relatively few European traders went to the East.

In 1637 Mundy found a pepper garden in Surat, a city in northwestern India; most likely he had never seen a pepper plant before. The long vines planted at the foot of what he called small betel nut trees immediately caught his eye, perhaps because they reminded him of England. The vines, he wrote in his journal, resembled ivy. "Att the Foote of these trees they sett the pepper plant, which groweth uppe about the said tree to the height of 10 or 12 Foote, Clasping, twyning and fastning it selff theron round about as the Ivy Doth the oake or other trees with us," he wrote. "They continue 10 to 12 yeare yielding good pepper; then they sett new plants, soe I was told. This yeares Croppe was newly gathered, some of it then lying a Drying in the sunne; yet were there a few clusters, both greene and ripe, left among the leaves on the plant. The berry when it is Ripe beecommeth ruby red and transparent cleare (I mean the substance about the kernel, otherwise greene), as bigge as small pease, sweet and hott in tast. The kernel of the said berry is the pepper indeed. The berry they putt to dry in the sunne and then that outward reddish substance drieth, rivelleth [shrivels] and becommeth black, in few daies, as wee now see it."

Mundy spent most of his life traveling, and was for a while a merchant for the English East India Company before he switched sides and worked for William Courteen, a rich merchant who established an association that for several decades challenged the monopoly of the Company. Before sailing to India in 1635 for Courteen, Mundy related with a certain wistfulness that he needed to find a ship in order to earn some money: "I had not bin longe att home, but through want of my accustomed Imployment, waistinge of meanes and some other occasions, I resolved once againe for London, to seeke some Voyage or Course to passe away tyme and provide somewhat for the future, which accordingly I performed ..."

Aside from his extensive travels, there isn't that much that is known about Mundy. He was born around 1596 into a merchant family that sold pilchards, or sardines, and he may have married. He probably died in the late 1670s in England. Mundy's remarkable diaries were never published in his lifetime; they appeared in print for the first time in 1914.

* * *

Wild pepper can be easily overlooked amid the unruly posturing of other tropical plants. The spice doesn't advertise itself with large, vividly colored flowers, or tease the nose with delicate scents. It doesn't generate an addictive or hallucinogenic substance, a distinctive aroma, or dazzling color. Its leaves are a modest dark green, shiny on the outside and paler below. Its only small extravagance is the berries it produces. They dangle in clusters from its vines like long pendulous earrings. After drying, the green berries become black, wrinkly little balls, each harboring a single seed — the peppercorn — the jewel delivering the mouthwatering kick that is its sine qua non.

Pepper is a woody climbing vine, and it still grows wild in its original home in the monsoon forests of the Western Ghats, the mountains lying along India's southwest coast, in what is now the state of Kerala. On this coast, the pepper ports of Calicut and Cochin served traders from many faraway empires. At one time, pepper vines were planted by the people here at the onset of the monsoon in June, and nearly every household had pepper plants that trailed on jack, mango, or on any other available tree.

In the botanical world, pepper belongs to a genus of plants with the musical-sounding name Piper. This fifelike genus was created in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist whose system for classifying plants is still in use today. He placed seventeen species in the Piper genus, and probably appropriated the ancient Greek name for black pepper, Peperi, as the basis for the group. The official botanical name for black pepper is the Latin Piper nigrum (nigrum is the species name). Although nigrum means black, white pepper comes from the same plant, a fact that confounded even the most learned observers. The difference depends on when the berries are picked and dried. Black pepper is picked when the berries are still green, while white pepper is picked later, when the berries have turned from green to red. The berries are placed in water to remove their tough outer covering, and are then dried, as Peter Mundy observed.


Excerpted from Pepper by Marjorie Shaffer. Copyright © 2013 Marjorie Shaffer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments ix
Foreword xi

One: Meet the Pipers 1
Two: The King of Spices 17
Three: Drugs and Souls 35
Four: Golden Elephants 69
Five: The British Invade 101
Six: The Dutch Terror 139
Seven: U.S. Pepper Fortunes 169
Eight: An Infinite Number of Seals 199
Nine: Medicinal Pepper 214

Epilogue 225
Notes 229
Selected Bibliography 277

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Pepper: A History of the World's Most Influential Spice 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Man_Of_La_Book_Dot_Com More than 1 year ago
Pep­per: A His­tory of the World’s Most Influ­en­tial Spice by Mar­jorie Shaf­fer is a non-fiction book trac­ing his­tory through the trade of black pep­per. Ms. Shaf­fer is a busi­ness reporter and sci­ence writer. This is an inter­est­ing book about this culi­nary delight. The book jour­neys through the ages and the com­pe­ti­tion between the Dutch, Eng­lish and Por­tuguese mer­chants. A nod towards the end of the book to 19th Cen­tury Amer­i­can pep­per traders ties up the his­tory nicely. The most inter­est­ing part of the book was the use of pep­per for med­i­c­i­nal pur­poses. I am not a big believer in med­ica­tion, not that I have any­thing against tak­ing med­ica­tion, I just think we take too much of it and with­out any pre­cau­tions. When needed to I will take med­ica­tion but I don’t want to be a guinea pig for big-pharma nor do I want to intro­duce harm­ful chem­i­cals to my body instead of nat­ural alter­na­tives. Pep­per, it seems, has been used as almost a “cure all” for many dis­eases, over the years that knowl­edge was lost but now sci­en­tists are start­ing to dis­cover that maybe there is some­thing to it after all. Pep­per, at the time, was a very valu­able com­mod­ity, more than gold or sil­ver. In 1498, Por­tuguese explorer Vasco de Gama man­aged to get around the Cape of Good Hope and opened up the sear routes to China and India. Unknow­ingly, de Gama made it pos­si­ble for the super-powers at the time to estab­lish colonies. Sea fair­ing was a dan­ger­ous occu­pa­tion and the book doesn’t mince words. The his­tory of this pun­gent spice is rid­dled with pirates, wealth and greed. Char­ac­ters of all types grace the pages of his­tory, from William Dampier, an Eng­lish pirate who protested the treat­ment of natives, to Jan Pieter­szoon Coen, a bru­tal governor. Those look­ing for recipes or culi­nary uses for black pep­per are sure to be dis­ap­pointed, those look­ing for a frank, hon­est look at his­tory of trade and empire build­ing. The author uses first-person accounts from jour­nals and ship logs to make inter­est­ing points and bring his­tory to life.