Native to the monsoon rainforests of Kerala, black pepper, a sun-dried berry of the pepper vine, is one of the earliest known, and most widely used, spices in the world. Growing on a climbing evergreen perennial vine supported by host trees such as areca, coconut, mango or jackfruit in home-yards or on a wooden pole in plantations, it is a common feature in the region is perhaps why the tropical climate and the heavy monsoons of Kerala are ideal for this plant.
In fact, the finest quality of pepper is grown along the lowlands and high ranges of the State. Interestingly, legend has it that on one of his trips back from Kerala, Vasco da Gama asked the king whether he could take a pepper stalk back with him to be replanted. The king responded calmly, “You may take our pepper, but I don’t think you will be able to take our rains”. He was, of course, referring to Kerala’s twin monsoons, almost a prerequisite for the growing of pepper.
Choose your pepper
The corns are grown and marketed in four different colours: black, white, red and green – all harvested from the same pepper plant by changing the time of harvest and processing method.
Berries are picked when they start to turn yellow. Sun-drying them just before they are fully ripe produces the prized variety. The less potent white pepper comes from the same berries that are picked when riper. Fully mature berries are soaked in water to remove their outer skin, leaving the white pulp of the pepper berry. The skinless berries are sun-dried to produce white pepper. White pepper has a different flavour but it retains the pungency of black pepper.
When pepper is harvested early, pickled in salt or vinegar and then freeze dried, it is regarded as green pepper.
Since berries are unripe, they are highly aromatic with an almost herbal flavour but less pungent. When the same kind of processing is applied to fully ripe berries, it yields red peppercorns. Piperine, the alkaloid in pepper, stimulates absorption of several nutrients by the body.
Some Very Cool Facts
- Pepper has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-oxidant properties. In Ayurveda, it is considered an important healing spice and is used to aid digestion, improve the appetite, and treat coughs and colds.
- Pepper has a colourful history as it followed the trade routes to the West and practically changed the course of history by playing a key role in the development of Indian Ocean spice trade.
- Sumerian clay tablets from 3000 BCE and Egyptian papyruses dating back to 1550 BCE describe pepper and other spices used for both medicinal and embalming procedures.
- The mummy of Ramses II who died 1213 BCE had peppercorns inserted into his nostrils.
- Central Asian tribes, along with Jewish, Indian, Chinese and Southeast Asian merchants, were active traders and intermediaries in early Indian Ocean trade. They sailed with the monsoon winds along the Indian Ocean between Arabia, India, Southeast Asia and China.
- The port at Muziris in Kerala was the main transshipment port for goods from the east.
- Southern Arabia was the great spice emporium of the ancient world and from there spices were transported across the land to the Egyptian port of Alexandria.
- After conquering Egypt in 332–331 BCE Alexander the Great founded Alexandria as a port for extending the spice trade into the Mediterranean. During the reign of the Ptolemies that followed, Alexandria thrived and grew into one of the largest metropolises in the world. Though Arabs still effectively controlled the spice trade, Alexandria grew wealthy by levying duty on these exports.
- Venetians were middlemen doing business with both the Islamic world and the Byzantine Empire and sold spices to Europe at exorbitant prices. By the 13th century, profits from the European spice trade went directly to Venice.
- Pepper doubled as a stable form of currency and in England a pound of pepper was an accepted form of rent from land tenants and the first Pepperers Guild in London was formed in 1180 CE.
- In 15th century Europe, Charles the Brave of Burgundy had 289 pounds of pepper brought to his table for his wedding banquet.
- With the Portuguese discovery of the ocean route to India, Lisbon became one of the wealthiest towns in Europe.
- In 1663CE the Dutch East India Company gained trade supremacy in India by defeating the Portuguese and controlling pepper production and trade. By 1721CE the British defeated the Dutch and developed large plantations in Kerala and India became the largest producer of pepper.
But what were they doing with all of this Pepper?
Pepper was used both in medicine and cooking and Roman writings as early as the first century CE described dishes using pepper. In fact, it was a major ingredient in most of the recipes in De re Coquinaria, a third-century cookbook by Apicius. It was among goods most in demand for which Romans paid dearly with gold and silver. Pliny the Elder lamented that imports from India cost Rome fifty million sesterces annually.
In India, the culinary use of pepper decreased with the introduction of chilli peppers by the Portuguese. In Kerala, its land of origin, pepper is still an auspicious offering at Kodungalloor Bhagavathi temple near the ancient seaport Muziris, and green peppercorns are offered at the shrine of Vavar, Lord Ayyappan’s Muslim friend, at Sabarimala.
And so, the story of this amazing spice continues to unravel, carrying with it centuries of history – connecting cultures, dominions, economies, lifestyles, triggering wars and setting in motion long and arduous journeys across land and sea.
Writer- Ammini Ramachandran Photographs- Thulasi Kakkat, R.V. Ramachandran Copy Editor- Ankita Badoni, Alice Agarwal