In Ancient Rome, pepper was a hit!
It was appreciated for its piquant taste, which was combined with sweet dishes. Apparently, Nero’s favourite snack was peppered honey smeared on a piece of bread. It only began to be used in European cuisine when it appeared on the continent around the 5th/6th centuries BC, probably because it was also treated as a medicine, as already mentioned by Hippocrates. Pepper was supposed to awaken the appetite, assist sneezing, cure fevers and was of course regarded as an aphrodisiac.
Today we know that black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a perennial climbing plant and comes from the Indian subcontinent. In natural conditions, it winds itself around trees as a parasite and can even reach 11 metres in length. All the pleasures and sensations stemming from its “spiciness” are produced by a substance it contains called piperine. This is an organic chemical compound, an alkaloid which stimulates our salivary glands and the production of digestive juices in the stomach. This causes us to sweat in a hot climate (cooling our bodies). It is cultivated in avenues (or rows) on trellises or poles and rarely grows to 2 metres in length. The inflorescences, which are protected by large thick leaves, possess about 30-40 stone fruit similar to berries.
Black pepper is the unripe fruit, which turns dark brown and wrinkles when dried.
White pepper is the mature fruit, which is soaked, enabling the outer layer to be removed, preserving the light-coloured seed, which is removed and dried.
Green pepper is the unripe green seed, which is conserved in brine or marinated after gathering.
The pepper so cherished by the Romans was oblong in shape. The round pepper we use today appeared in Europe around the 12th century. Of course, in Roman cookery, this was an expensive spice beyond most people’s budget. It was given us a gift to consuls, senators and anyone else who exercised power. On conquering Rome, the King of the Visigoths, Alaric I, demanded half a tonne of pepper as part of the ransom.
How did the expression “cheap as pepper” arise?
In the Middle Ages, the expression “expensive as pepper” was well-known. It was used as a currency and could even form part of a dowry, ransom or fine. In England, it could be used to pay rent. The expression “peppercorn rent” dates from those times, although it means the complete opposite today, but the cost of pepper is also quite different. Prices fell gradually. Initially, a cheaper rival appeared in the form of “African pepper”, also known as “grains of paradise”.
One of Henry the Navigator’s ships brought a cargo of Madagascan aframomum, a plant growing in Guinea, to Lisbon. This plant was named melegueta pepper, although it wasn’t pepper (it belonged to the ginger family). The Portugese liked it so much that many merchants who had been trading in pepper up to that point went bankrupt overnight. On Africa’s western seaboard, European trading posts begin to spring up like mushrooms. The inhabitants of African still eat this pepper today. They season soups with it and toast this spice to intensify its flavour. Black soup made from game, fish or poultry and herbs is still a cult dish among Guineans.
The most important factor causing the drop in price was of course the discovery of new shipping routes. The Portuguese, Spaniards, Italians, and subsequently, the Danish and English were able to trade directly with spice producers. After, all, the desire to find a route to India led to Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America and the identification of another rival to pepper, i.e. chilli. The emphasis on new fresh taste sensations and the milder dishes in French cuisine also contributed to pepper’s loss of popularity. It became known as the “spice of the poor”.
What does the mill have in common with Peugeot?
The pepper mill was invented in 1842 by Jean-Frederic and Jean-Pierre Peugeot. The brothers mainly known today for their production of automobiles, started off by producing useful household devices. These included sheep shears, saws and clock springs. Their first major success was the coffee mill, which led to the later appearance of the pepper mill.
Pepper Mills were initially only produced from birch, but nowadays are also made from walnut, metal (plated in chrome, silver or nickel and polished or motor-powered). They are also made from crystal glass, Bakelite or transparent acrylic, coming in various shapes and colours, but there are also mills that contain both wood and metal. The following designs can still be bought today: Paris, Chateauneuf, the transparent Nancy, the electric Elis, the bottle-shaped Saint-Emilion, and many others.
There is a familiar anecdote that Jeane-Pierre Peugeot, during one of his study trips to the United States was entertained by some of the greatest American producers. Proud of their know-how, they were boasting about everything that was American. During a formal dinner, one important boss, in an attempt to demonstrate the omnipotence of American industry, made the generalized statement that everything in the room where they were eating dinner was American to the finest detail.
– Almost everything – Jean-Pierre Peugeot calmly responded, holding up a pepper mill. – Apart from this, for THIS is French and even has the Peugeot logo.