We hold a pepper mill over our food – ideally one sold by WIBERG – use it to season our meal, tuck in, and that’s it! That’s how easy it is to season using pepper these days, but it wasn’t always so straightforward. It was only after many years of difficulties and hardships that this valuable spice was made widely available to us. Let’s take a look behind what we take for granted and go on a journey, the purpose of which was to bring pepper to us in all its colours, forms and varieties.
There is a lot of blood associated with peppercorns from previous centuries. The fruits of the tropical pepper plants originally came from southern India, arriving in Europe via Alexander the Great’s Indian campaign, and quickly became enormously popular. Its long shelflife in dried form made it an ideal product for long-distance trade. The Romans loved it, but refused to pay high Arabian prices. So they swiftly sent an army to bring the southern Arabian spice kingdoms into the Roman Empire to solve this problem. In the following eras, from antiquity to the Middle Ages, trade in pepper was a lucrative business. Only spices that reached us from the discovery of the New World, such as chili peppers or vanilla, had an equivalent status. Incidentally, chili peppers were even at times accepted as currency in Peru, whereas in Europe, pepper was widely valued on a par with pure gold. Venice in the Middle Ages had the spicy plant to thank for a large proportion of its wealth. The Venetians bought pepper and other luxury items from India using the old trade routes, passing through the Middle East. It was a difficult journey through a region that was as dangerous then as it is now. The traders always had to be accompanied by soldiers, who were supposed to guarantee their safe arrival in Venice; however, not every delivery actually arrived. These difficulties and the supremacy of Venice encouraged other European countries to accelerate the search for an ocean route to India. A lot of money was invested in developing seafaring: the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus would have been unthinkable without pepper. In the end, it was da Gama who first brought a cargo of pepper by ship from India to Europe in 1498. He circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope, and thereby the continent of Africa, thus discovering the ocean route to India.
"Go where the pepper grows" - one wishes someone whom one would prefer to send to a faraway place so as not to have to meet them again for the foreseeable future.
"Pepper sack" - insulting name for a corpulent merchant who owes their wealth, among other things, to the sale of pepper and other spices.
"There's a rabbit in the pepper" - the proverb says that you can no longer identify a rabbit that is already in the pepper sauce by its smell, because the spiciness covers everything else - similar to a problem whose cause is only recognised late.
"He must have pepper up his behind" - this is how one describes a person with a hot-tempered, biting temper.
The Portuguese, Spanish, British, Dutch, French – suddenly everybody wanted to travel to Asia and purchase, capture, exploit or somehow bring back to Europe their exotic spices, and, above all, stocks of pepper. This led to several armed clashes between these European countries, who were investing increasing amounts into equipping their navies. No country wanted to fall behind the others, and each of them tried to establish colonies where it was possible to cultivate pepper. Pepper lost some chillis importance when chili peppers arrived in Europe from the newly discovered American continent and displaced pepper in some places as the hot spice of choice. After the Portuguese and Spanish, the Dutch took over the majority of the pepper trade and turned Amsterdam into a town of "pepper sacks", as the rich spice traders of the time were disparagingly called. Once the British also gradually began to bring pepper to Europe, the price of pepper fell for the first time. However, it retained its position as the reference point for the spice market. High demand for the hot spice ensured that its trade was still a good business and remains so to this day.
The lack of refrigeration facilities for food was one of the reasons why pepper was needed in large quantities in Europe. Meat that was not eaten immediately after slaughter, especially in the summer, began to give off an unpleasant smell quite quickly, which was masked with pepper. In addition, pepper was always a sign of wealth, which often led to dishes being exaggeratedly peppered just to convince guests of the wealth they possessed. In contrast to salt, however, pepper is of no significance in terms of nutritional physiology. Today, we hardly think about the ways, efforts and sacrifices that were necessary over the course of time so that we can pepper our dishes as a matter of routine. Today, pepper is easy to obtain and is on the table in most restaurants and canteens, along with salt, yet it has played such an important role historically and economically.