It’s hard to believe that a spice so ubiquitous to us, found in nearly every home cabinet and every single restaurant table in the world, was at one time a luxury item and thus extremely expensive to acquire. That’s because black pepper ‒ unlike its faithful albeit easily found companion, salt ‒ is explicitly indigenous to southwest India. However, as the spice became more accessible to the people and global demand increased, farmers began adapting the crop to other similar tropical climates around the world such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and more recently, Brazil. However, first we’ll start with how and when black pepper escaped the jungles of India onto the global scene in the first place.
The use of black pepper in India, where it was originally found, dates back to at least 2000 BCE ‒ back when human civilization was just starting out (it’s comforting to know that mankind knew good cuisine before anything else).
In Europe on the other hand, similar to the history of many of the world’s most popular spices, to find black pepper meant looking in the pantries of the wealthiest families of the time. Also referred to as “black gold,” black peppercorns held as currency throughout the Middle Ages, and were an extremely prized trade good, most likely because it could only be found in one unique geographical area. Evidence supports the presence of black pepper in trade routes from as early as 1000 BCE when traders from South Arabia had a monopoly on exotic goods and traded with the Ancient Greeks and Romans, where it became widely popular despite its cost. In fact, in order to protect the exotic nature of black pepper, traders often exaggerated the lengths they went to for their customers ‒ wouldn’t you buy seasoning guarded by a dragon?
By the end of the Medieval period, Venetian and Genoan traders had a good grip on the Mediterranean and European markets through their connections to Muslim traders on the Silk Road trade route. Europeans’ restlessness with paying absurd amounts of money for black pepper eventually led to the Age of Exploration, in which the likes of Vasco Da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan opened hundreds of new trade routes to the West Indies, and thus lowered the price of pepper. The rest is history.
Even today, certain types of pepper reign superior above others. For example, tellicherry black peppercorns, also found in southwest India, are simply left on the vine longer, and thus allowed to grow larger and develop their infamously rich flavor, worthy of distinction as the finest pepper in the world. Similarly, Malaysian Sarawak Peppercorn and Cameroonian Pepper di Penja, also known as “Extra Fancy” White Peppercorns possess a strong, fiery flavor and creamy white color, making it an exotic and thus highly expensive breed of pepper.
While black pepper in its most common form is grounded, the pepper berries themselves are harvested, boiled, and dried before they even enter the factory for processing and packaging. The peppercorns themselves come from the shrub Piper nigrum, just one of a thousand species of pepper. Besides being lauded by chefs for its pervasiveness within dishes through its sharp smell and flavor, black pepper also has several astounding medicinal uses, particularly when prepared as a tea. In tea form, black pepper has been linked to relieving arthritis, nausea, headache, sore throat, fever, poor digestion and even coma.
Pepper in Italy
As mentioned before, the Ancient Romans were absolutely fascinated by black pepper, and the Venetians and Genoans controlled its distribution up until the early fifteenth century, so it’s no surprise that there are a plethora of traditional Italian dishes which make use of this incredibly versatile seasoning.
Perhaps the most well-known of these dishes (to Rome especially) is cacio e pepe, a simple but savory pasta made with sharp sheep’s milk Pecorino cheese and cracked black pepper. While top chefs today have their own overpriced version of this traditional dish, it was originally prepared by shepherds and other populations of poor Romans who always kept their pantries stocked with Pecorino, which doesn’t spoil easily; pasta, an ideal source of carbohydrates and calories; and black pepper, used to generate body heat during cold winter nights. Together, these three basic ingredients create a mouthwatering blend of flavors and source of energy for any hungry wanderer.
Another world-famous Italian plate is pasta alla carbonara, which is just as simple and just as savory. In both of these pasta meals, the overwhelming aroma of the pepper immediately stands out, but also adds a touch of heat and roasted flavor contrasted with the less dramatic taste of the pasta. Overall, black pepper is an invaluable staple in the global food market with a rich history deeply rooted in Italy. Although it is easy to take this universal spice for granted, its pungent aroma is enough to make itself known within any dish. You can find basic black peppercorns, extra fancy peppercorns and a vast array of other spices at the Emporio Delle Spezie in Rome, a small yet incredibly well-stocked spice shop located in the Testaccio neighborhood, carrying hundreds of spices from all over the world.