While I was writing Forsaken, I did a lot of research. A lot. How the medieval world obtained pepper, salt and other spices was part of that research. It was fascinating how something we don’t give much thought to was as costly as gold.
I’ll admit it. We love pepper…a lot of people do. We actually wore out a Peugeot pepper mill in just two years. Everyone has access to pepper. Everyone buys pepper, but we never stop to think how precious a commodity it was in times past. We run to the store and buy a tin or a plastic shaker bottle—or peppercorns if you like grinding your own. It’s inexpensive as spices go, but that hasn’t always been the case. It was so valuable at one time, that the desire for pepper and other spices changed the course of world history.
Originally, pepper, like other spices, made its way west by way of trading. The grower sold it to Trader A, who took it some distance where Trader B bought it and carried it further west. Each time it was sold, the price went up. By the time the pepper and spices reached the ends of Western Europe, it was so expensive that only Kings and wealthy nobles could afford it. Spices became a status symbol—the Ferraris of their day.
Pharaoh Ramses II obviously loved pepper. He must have, otherwise he wouldn’t have had peppercorns shoved up his nose after he died. Not a very appetizing thought (as you stand at the stove with a pepper mill in your hand), but it did show that the Egyptians revered the little black peppercorn we generally take for granted.
The Greeks and Romans used pepper, too, and there seem to be many Roman recipes that contain pepper. I read somewhere that when Hannibal rode his elephants through the Alps into Italy, he demanded more than one ton of pepper as a ransom. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s a lot of pepper! And remember, the Romans used salt as a form of currency—it was a good thing if a soldier was “worth his weight in salt.”
By the time of the Middle Ages, a trade route had been established from India to Italy, which took about a year to make round trip and for more than a thousand years, Italy had a stranglehold on the pepper trade. The Portuguese decided they’d had enough of the exorbitant prices and Italy’s monopoly. They found a way to India by sailing around the tip of Africa. Monopolies, however, are tricky things to maintain and even harder to keep. Smugglers found ways around the trade routes and through the blockades. By the 17th century, Portugal had lost its monopoly to the Dutch and English.
Back to the Middle Ages. The Crusaders brought back many items from the Near East never before seen in their home country; fruits like apricots and lemons, perfumes and soaps, rice and pistachios. Pepper was a luxury item, as were many spices. They were costly. What delicious fun to one-up high ranking guests by having an especially rare spice used in the dishes prepared for the meal! Herbs and spices also improved the flavor of salted meats kept for winter use.
It’s amazing to think about how something as simple and seemingly insignificant as a peppercorn could influence history. And yet, it did.