For a few millennia before the 1600s, the term ‘Black Gold’ referred to the humble pepper. Coal claimed that title with the advent of the internal combustion engine but until then, it was pepper that really determined the fate of the seas and the land. Too hard to believe? Read on.
Pepper is a native of the western ghats in Southern India, what is now mostly Kerala and South-West Karnataka. The ancient trade routes carried spices on land across the spice route – across the himalayas through arabia to the west and to the east mostly to SouthEast Asia and China. This long and arduous journey meant that it was a super premium commodity. This continued until a sea route was discovered by the trading merchants of Kerala from Malabar coast to North Africa, into the Red Sea Canal to be dropped off at Alexandria. From there it would be carried over land and distributed through the rest of europe. This direct access to Europe changed the game in many ways. The roman city states like Genoa grew obscenely rich and controlled most of this spice trade from India. In fact, Pliny – the Roman natural historian in his landmark piece titled “Naturalis Historia” complains – “There is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of 50 million sesterces”, With the city states growing increasingly powerful, in particular Genoa, the spaniards and the portugese who otherwise had strong maritime capabilities decided to figure out alternatives and thus began the famous expedition of July 1497, of Vasco Da Gama to find the route past the Cape of Good Hope to the malabar coast. Imagine That! – how the humble pepper influenced world politics.
But why pepper? That’s something we wondered as well because we understand the need to brave the unknown seas in search of gold but why pepper? Turns out the answer to this literally lies in the term ‘black gold’. Pepper was so rare and so controlled in its distribution that it was considered legal tender which made it the equivalent of Gold!
From ancient Egypt till the fall of the Roman Empire, pepper captured the imagination of the world. It was the most traded spice with India pretty much monopolising the production. However, for the most part, it was the food of the rich – the kings and emperors – pretty much like gold! During this time, it was also legal tender as we mentioned earlier. This literally means that one could walk in a market, buy goods by paying in pepper corns. One could even put their pepper assets as a collateral for loans with the European banking system including the Medicis. This tradition continues to this day in some parts of the world including the US and Australia where a ‘peppercorn payment’ is a legal tender for token amounts.
With the Portuguese creating an alternative route to India, which basically cut out the middle men, they were able to get hold of this much sought after commodity at a much lower cost compared to their earlier arrangements with the roman city states. Until then, the supply of pepper was controlled artificially by these city states, in a manner that is similar to the OPEC policy on oil production. The portuguese unfortunately disrupted this system. This unwanted intrusion on what was a Roman monopoly, led to a lot of banker induced wars between the maritime states of Spain, Portugal and the merchant city states. Medicis again!
The effect of the portuguese entry to the indian trading ports, had another effect as well. It opened up a new market. Portugal was not the only one in Europe with a strong maritime presence. Seeing the enormous wealth being accumulated by Portugal, the English and the Dutch entered the fray as well.
By 1600s, taking advantage of the spanish occupation of Portugal, the new entrants had completely taken over the portugese trade routes to India. It is not entirely untrue to say that it was perhaps the Black Gold, that brought the English to Indian Shores.
With competing european powers, who could never reach an understanding of controlled pricing, the quantity of pepper being sent to European shores grew exponentially with every passing year and this led to a drop in the price. What was once the food of the rich, began to be more common place with every passing decade. In addition, with the Portuguese unable to compete with the others for access to the Malabar port, they competed in a different form. They brought in another spice that gave a similar sharpness to the food – the red chilli. Within our country, this red chilli could be grown anywhere and din’t have to be restricted to the western ghats alone. So most of the common folks in the country gradually adopted this new spice to add that sharpness to their food that few had tasted before. The availability of a newly introduced, easy to grow spice led to the gradual but undeniable decline of the premium that pepper had.
The adoption of the red chilli in the cuisine in our country led to an explosion of variants and new dishes around this time. The galouti kebab, the dum biryani are some examples of the same.
400 years since the first red chilli was brought to the Indian shores, we cannot imagine our lives without it but for at least 3 millennia before that, spicy hot indian food could only be served in royal banquets and the halls of rich merchants and none of it could be done without the humble black pepper.
It is quite surprising that the use of pepper has come so much into fashion, seeing that in other substances which we use, it is sometimes their sweetness, and sometimes their appearance that has attracted our notice; whereas, pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation to either fruit or berry, it’s only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India! Who was the first to make trial of it as an article of food? and who, I wonder, was the man that was not content to prepare himself by hunger only for the satisfying of a greedy appetite?
Today when we harvest pepper in our collective in coorg, we recognise and acknowledge the influence this little berry has had on our lives. We cannot help but share a feeling of history and legacy when we harvest this pepper in the old ways – from the forest, uncultivated. The next time you order some wild pepper with us, take a moment to acknowledge the enormous influence this little one has had on the world. Believe me it adds a sense of wonder to the experience.