Black Gold: Pepper

Unlike table salt which is found all around the world, black pepper is indigenous to the Malabar coast, in SW India. The Indians have been using this special spice since 2000 BC? Would you believe that peppercorns were found stuffed into the nostrils of mummified Ramses the Great?

It is well known that by 40AD the Romans had a roaring spice trade and one of the most prized commodities was pepper. The ships that sailed as per the winds back then had a pretty sweet routine set for themselves. They left Indian coasts with loaded ships with the monsoon winds and headed to Alexandria. Alexandria was one of the commercial trade hubs back then. They mostly carried along cinnamon, various incenses and pepper. When the strong monsoon winds switched in the fall, they sailed back to India with empty vessels.

The Romans did not seem to get enough of this spice. More than 80% of the recipes back then contained at least a teeny weeny sprinkle of pepper somewhere. Sometime during 410 AD, the Romans were attacked by a group of nomadic tribes who are now referred to as the Goths. The siege ended only when the Romans paid gold, silver, fabric/ tunics, hide and 3000 pounds of pepper! Edward Gibbon mentioned pepper in his book, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He describes pepper to be the favourite ingredient of the most expensive Roman cookery.

The Pepper Myth:

When the Roman Empire was nearing its downfall, other groups began taking charge of the spice trade. One of the strongholds was held by the Arab mariners and merchants. They took over the trade activities in the Indian Ocean, extending from East Africa to the Southern coast of China. The Arabs fabricated fantastical tales about the hardships they faced to get the spice. This was done just so that they could continue their monopoly over its trade.

Peppers are found in the thick forests of India and the Caucas mountains, guarded by hundreds of poisonous serpents. The forests are burnt down to drive the snakes away. In doing this, the white beads turn into black peppercorns.

The Arabs knew that no Englishman in his right state of mind would put his life on the line for a dash of spice. At no point did the demand for this spice drop low. But it did insight curiosity amongst the Europeans. By the 14th Century, the Arabs were not the only ones out on Sea. Genoa had become a prominent commercial hub with pepper as its primary commodity. By the 15th Century, almost 400 tons of pepper used to reach Venice after passing through Alexandria and Genoa.

The Venetians, the Catalans of Barcelonian traders and anyone else dealing with this spice, marked up the price by anything between 25 and 40%. By the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese took over the spice trade. Portugal imported about 2 million kilograms of Pepper from the Malabar Coast annually.

The cost of the pepper went really high as it changed hands each time. And it changed hands several times before it reached the European elite. By the 16th century, the Portuguese started to lose their monopoly over the trade to the Dutch. When the Dutch and the Portuguese managed the spice trade, pepper was so valuable that it was worth more than gold by weight. This is how pepper came to earn the title “Black Gold”. In fact, individual peppercorns were accepted as legal currency. The labourers who worked with pepper were issued clothes without pockets to prevent theft. Until this day, the Dutch use the phrase “pepper expensive” to refer to any commodity that is costly.

Pepper even moved through the Silk Route. The route extended about 4000 miles but the spice was in such high demand that the Italian traders could fix prices on their whim and fancy. At this stage, pepper was a luxury.  Eventually, the whole of Europe was being swayed by the high Venetian prices.

This was one of the triggers that set of Christopher Columbus, Vasco Da Gama and other explorers. Columbus stocked his ships with heaps of what he believed to be peppercorns, from the “Spice Islands”. It was only when he reached Spain did he find out he was mistaken. These turned out to be chilli peppers. There was a period when Pepper accounted for 70% of the international spice trade. Once there were trade routes established by other successful explorers, pepper prices dropped. It was only when this happened that pepper started to be incorporated along with local herbs and spices. Some of the mixes that came about were:

1. Garam Masala in India

2. Ras el hanour in Morocco

3. Quatre épices in France

4. Cajun in the Americas

5. Jerk in Jamaica

What’s so special about these Peppercorns!?

Peppercorns are fruits obtained from a vine indigenous to the Malabar Coast of SW India. At present, it represents 25% of the world trade in spices and only a handful of countries produce it. Some of the other producers include Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

One of the active biomolecules responsible for Peppers’ pungent flavour is an alkaloid known as Piperine. Its quantity varies from 1-2% in long pepper and from 5-10% in white and black peppers. Piperine along with other biomolecules have been traditionally used to relieve people from a number of ailments.

  • Antidepressant: Piperine, the active molecule in pepper is known to relieve one from depression when mixed with Knotweed. Piperine is also known to protect the neural pathways and reduce inflammations. It also improves cognitive function.
  • Antioxidant: Piperine is known to reduce oxidative stress caused particularly by a high-fat diet. Besides piperine, there are other active molecules like phenolic compounds in pepper that play a role in scavenging free radicals.
  • Antimicrobial: Pepper has been extensively used in Ayurvedic formulations to fight off infections. Recent studies have confirmed the strong antibacterial properties of Piperine. This is one of the reasons Pepper has been used along with salt in foods that are stored for long periods of time. Pepper prevents the growth of pathogenic bacteria in these foods.
  • Stimulates Digestion: A dash of pepper in soups and salads goes a long way in stimulating the digestive enzymes in the stomach. Perfect for a lip-smacking appetizer!
  • Increases Bio-availability: A lot of times, though we eat healthily, the nutrition from the food is not completely absorbed by the body. This usually results in active molecules passing out of the intestine without having an effect on the individual. Piperine in that regard was identified as the world’s first bioavailability enhancer. Pepper has been used along with turmeric to increase the effectivity of the turmeric by almost ten-fold. Piperine enhances the bio-absorbance of curcumin, the active molecule present in turmeric. This is partly due to the fact that piperine has a strong effect on the brush borders of the intestinal walls.

So from the next time over, never miss an opportunity to sprinkle some blackgold on to your salad!

Disclaimer: The above article is sponsored by Thyrve, the world’s first Gut Health Program that incorporates microbiome testing and personalized probiotics to ensure a healthier gut, happier life, and a brighter future.