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The flavor of Kerala – Story of an Ancient Spice

pepper, ancient spice of kerala

Black pepper, piper nigum, world’s most widely used spice is indigenous to Kerala. The hot and pungent berries of the pepper plant are one of the earliest known and the most widely used spice in the world. Piper longum, long pepper, called pippali in Sanskrit was the most valuable Indian exports of earliest times. In ancient Europe long pepper was used as medicine. Early Greek traders thought that black pepper was a variety of long pepper and called it peperi, and in Latin it became piper nigum. Black pepper’s Sanskrit name maricha was unknown in the west.

The story of Indian Spices is an ever-changing history of lands discovered or destroyed, favors sought or offered, treaties signed or broken, wars won or lost, and kingdoms built or brought down. For Europe, spices were the envoys from enchanted orient. The monsoon soaked rain forests of Kerala, home to several spices, became a prime destination for many explorers. Black pepper has a colorful history as it followed the trade routes to the west. Nomadic Arabs and ancient Phoenicians are said to be among the first to come to Kerala for spice trade. The Arabs gained control of the lucrative trade by 600 B.C. They transported pepper, cinnamon, incense, and oils from the East through the Persian Gulf to Arabia. Southern Arabia became the great spice emporium of the ancient world.

The seamen of Ptolemaic Egypt carefully avoided long voyages close to the Arab-controlled shoreline of India. During the reign of King Ptolemy VII, around 116 B.C. a Greek sailor managed to sail with the winds and reach India’s southwest coast, marking the beginnings of a thriving Egyptian, and later Roman spice trade. Ptolemy XI bequeathed Alexandria to the Romans in 80 BC. By 40 AD Alexandria became not only the greatest commercial center in the world but also the preeminent emporium for spices. The rapid growth of Roman trade led to the introduction of a direct route from Red Sea ports to the ancient port of Muziris in central Kerala. Roman ships left in July, at the height of the monsoon season and returned back with the reverse northwest monsoons in November. They used the most southerly course even in the worst monsoons especially as the sighting of the Lakshadweep Islands two hundred miles from mainland gave them excellent guide to their destination. The consumption of pepper grew astonishingly in the days of the Roman Empire and pepper became the most typical spice in medieval Europe. It was a status symbol of fine cookery and a descriptions of lavish feasts invariably mentioned pepper, if not other spices. Recipes for pepper sauces even appeared in Roman novels of 1st century A.D. Roman Emperor Domition designated an area in the heart of the city as Ahorrea piperataria, pepper sheds, for the exclusive use of pepper merchants.

The Roman trade began to weaken during the 3rd century A.D. Arab and Ethiopian middlemen began to take control of the trade. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Arabs held the control of spice trade for a long time. Major Mid-east market centers were Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Alexandria. In order to protect their market and to enhance the price of pepper and also to discourage competitors, Arab traders artfully withheld the true sources of the spices they transported from Kerala. According to an ancient text, The Nature of Things, pepper is the seed or fruit from a tree that grows in the lush forests on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains in the hottest sunshine. The pepper forests are full of snakes that guard the trees. When fruits are ripe, people set fire to the forest, the snakes flee, and the thick flames blacken the pepper fruits and make them sharper.

By this time Venice became a great sea power and controlled the Adriatic Sea. The Venetians dominated in the distribution of pepper and other spices from the Mid-east to Western Europe. With these virtual monopolies in trade and distribution pepper price skyrocketed and only the rich were able to afford it. Pepper was sold for exorbitant prices all over Western Europe. Pepper was equivalent to money and people stored it under and lock and key. In 408 A.D. when Alaric, the King of Visigoths, besieged Rome he demanded a stiff price for sparing the city, which included fine garments, gold, silver and 3000 kilograms of pepper.

Pepper was considered a symbol of wealth and affluence and doubled as a more stable form of currency than money. A proper bribe from a merchant in Venice to a tax collector included among other things a pound of pepper. And in France a pound of pepper could free a slave. In Germany a nickname for the rich was pepper sacks. In renaissance Italy, pasta dishes served at banquets were sprinkled with abundant quantities of black pepper and cinnamon, as a symbol of prosperity. The princely houses of Europe had developed a passion for pepper that led to ostentatious display. Miniature ships of precious metal, inlaid with gems and filled with pepper and cinnamon were used as dinner table decorations. Charles the Brave of Burgundy had 289 pounds of pepper brought to his table for his wedding banquet.

pepper, ancient spice of kerala

In early 11th century King Ethelred collected toll in the form of bags of pepper from ships that landed at Billingsgate. In 1101 A.D. soldiers of Genoa were rewarded with one kilogram of pepper each for their victory in a war. One of the oldest guilds in the City of London registered in 1328 A.D. was the Guild of Pepperers. When an English ship that sank in 1545 A.D. was raised from the ocean in the 1980’s, nearly every sailor’s body was found to have a bunch of peppercorns, the most portable valuable, in his possession. In England a pound of pepper was a commonly accepted form of rent from land tenants. During later years pepper became cheap and a custom of handing a single peppercorn to confirm a tenancy came into existence. In 1973 the tributes Prince Charles received as he took possession of the Duchy of Cornwall included a pound of pepper.

The higher prices for pepper frustrated other European nations and the quest for a new source of pepper fuelled the enthusiasm of the great explorers of the Renaissance. The conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 A.D. had already marked the decline of Venice. During the latter half of 15th century the Spanish and the Portuguese built stronger ships and ventured abroad in search of a new ocean route to the spice producing countries of the east. In 1498, Portugal’s fortunes rose when Vasco da Gama rounded Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and reached the southwestern shores of India. As they landed on the shores of Kerala, the men shouted “for Christ and spices!” They had arrived at the very heart of spice country.

The advent of the Portuguese through the newly discovered ocean route totally ended the Arab and Venetian monopoly of pepper trade. In the following years, Lisbon became one of the wealthiest towns of Europe. After gaining their freedom from Spain in the 16th century, the Dutch began their voyages to the East Indies during 1595 A.D. The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602 A.D. By 1663 A.D. the Dutch gained trade supremacy in the east by defeating the Portuguese. Soon the British were on the scene. Conflict erupted between the Dutch and the British in the following years and the British eventually broke a 200-year Dutch monopoly.

The rise of French cuisine during the 17th century A.D. put an end to over-spicing of food and milder spices and herbs slowly replaced black pepper. The price of pepper dropped dramatically with the decrease in demand. By the middle of 19th century A.D. pepper prices dropped to six cents a kilogram in the world markets. Despite the drop in its price pepper continues remain a favorite spice. The world today consumes as much black pepper as all other spices combined. It is used in one way or other in most cuisines and it is used to prepare just about every kind of dish, including desserts. Today black pepper is freely traded in world commodity markets.

Today pepper is cultivated in the tropical regions near the equator around the globe. There are pepper plantations in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Brazil, and Sri Lanka. India and Indonesia together produce about half of the pepper traded in the world markets. Modern pepper trade grades pepper based on its country of origin. The Indian grades are Malabar and Thalasseri (Tellicherry) and they are very aromatic. Kochi is the major pepper trade center in India.

Ammini Ramachandran, www.peppertrail.com, ammini@peppertrail.com