The usual trend with food is: the world gets smaller, and more ingredients become available. With pepper, the reverse is true. In Medieval Europe people cooked with an enormous range of peppers – not only with common piper nigrum, but with many exotic variations of peppercorns.
The Florentines and Venetians were one of the most progressive spice traders in Medieval times. For example, an average range of Florentine spice merchant in the 14th century consisted of 288 spices, including white pepper, long pepper, grains of paradise, cubeb pepper and round black pepper.
Cubeb pepper frequently appeared in Medieval Polish recipes, and it was also used in the fourteenth century English recipes for flavouring dishes like ‘rabbits (connynges) in syrup’. We know that medieval cooks in northern France often used long pepper.
The Venetians were so bewitched by aromas of small pyramid shaped pepper grains, which came by boat down the Nile, that they called the spice ‘‘grains of paradise” (believing that the Garden of Eden was at the Source of the Nile). This obsession continued in the Court of Burgundy, where grains of paradise took preference over the common black pepper.
In fact using spice was so popular that medieval recipes held the art of spicing dishes in high regard. Historians describe how “cooks…prided themselves upon the number of incongruous elements they could combine in one dish without making it uneatable.”
Toward the end of the 15th century, Venice was importing 1,000 tons of peppercorns per year – making its fortune from the monopoly it had on trade with the Middle East. This inspired the Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gama, to set off in search of new trade routes. When Vasco de Gama reached India’s Malabar coasts in 1498, the traders asked him what he had come in search of: ‘‘to look for Christians and spices!’’ he replied. Soon ships laden with peppercorns were doing a roaring trade in Indian peppercorns – known as “black gold”.
However that kicked off a certain trend. Trade speculation, forgery and race for profits began to displace some spices from the market. For example, the king of Portugal banned the import of cubeb berries from Java to bolster the sale of Indian black pepper to better encourage their monopoly. Black cardamon seeds were often sold as “grains of paradise”, but while the plants are related, the aromas aren't even close.
Fast forward to the 20th century we can see even more drastic examples. In 1975, the communist party of Cambodia “Khmer Rouge” decided to eliminate the plantations of precious Kampot Pepper and to replace it with rice, and it wasn’t until 30 years later that some farmers families gave this pepper a new lease of life.
The global obsession with pepper had dwindled to stale pots of pre-ground pepper. Or as in the best case scenario, the dinning scene was “gifted” with matching salt ‘n pepper shakers on a dining table, dispensing tasteless flecks of pepper which was months or even years old. And the criticism was strong and justified, as people called the pepper a “fickle spice” making the dishes cheap. crass, lazy and tasting the same.
Its difficult to say what would turn around the situation, but recently people rediscovered the beauty of freshly ground pepper. And soon everybody had a wooden grinder on their wedding list. Italian restaurants allocated waiters to be Chief Grinder, arming them with increasingly large weapons to dash from table to table, seasoning dishes in front of the diners’ very eyes.
But looking at the history, we’ve got a lot to learn from our forefathers, who were familiar with a far wider range of peppers that we are. We have to remind ourselves of the origins of the products, because we have just done that with wines. A fine dining connoisseur recognises that a Chardonnay from Burgundy is very different from a Chardonnay grown in a warmer climate like Australia. But peppers’ ‘terroir’ is rarely recognised by cooks – many of whom freely use pepper as the all-important finishing flavour in a dish. However freshly-ground, strong black pepper doesn’t enhance every dish. And quite often more subtle flavours work far better – the light, coconut flavours of Grains of Paradise, or light and zesty flavours of Voatsiperifery, or cocoa and red berry notes of Long Red Kampot pepper, are a far better at matching your dish, than spicy and overwhelming Indian pepper.
Pepper is now grown all around the world. And its taste depends on a lot of things. Its a great adventure and challenge to reclaim what was lost to time, especially in modern gastronomy prone to cooking with only “salt and pepper”.