Long Pepper: A short-ish history

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Piper longum: ‘We only want it for its bite – and we will go to India to get it! Who was the first to try it with food? Who was so anxious to develop an appetite that hunger [alone] would not do the trick? Pepper and ginger grow wild in their native countries, and yet we value them in terms of gold and silver.’

So said the Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, of the fruits of the pepper plant, Piperaceae, expressed with his customary dose of dry wit. Much later, in the fourteenth century, the character known as Jehan de Mandeville, the alleged author of the popular later medieval travel account of fantastic voyages to the Far East, described the long pepper as looking ‘something like the flower of a hazel tree’ or catkin: a description we still use today. In fact, from at least 1000 BC, when the ancient Indian Ayuvedic texts praised its polyvalent ability to ‘provoke phlegm and wind: being pungent and hot, [… and] capable of increasing the semen,’ and until the 16th century, long pepper was a precious commodity in the global spice trade. A native of North East India, long pepper travelled both east to China and west to Europe, where its warming and digestive qualities were not lost on medieval cooks.

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Viandier, Sion, Médiathèque du Valais, S 108.

Guillaume Tirel, the fourteenth-century celebrity chef of the French royal court lists it among the basic spices of his store cupboard, along with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, grains of paradise, mace, spikenard, round (black or white) pepper, a finer cinnamon, saffron, galingale, nutmeg, and cumin. I always smile and think of Tirel’s list when people tell me that medieval food must have been bland or unadventurous. This may have been the French court, and one of the European epicentres of prestige, wealth and power in the Middle Ages, but if having fourteen different spices was considered de rigeur, one might wonder what Tirel considered exotic or lavish!

Similarly, Balducci Pegolotti, a Florence-born traveller and merchant, active between 1315 and 1340, includes long pepper among the exhaustive number of spices listed in his Libro de divisamenti di paesi e di misuri di mercatanzie, better known as the Pratica della mercatura. An encyclopaedic insight into the world of the Italian merchant, Pegolotti describes the types of imports and exports one might expect to find moving between the major trading cities of fourteenth century Europe and beyond, their names in both the Italian vernacular and in foreign tongues, the business etiquette of such regions, and all of the weights, coinages, and values required for successful commerce. Quite the Financial Times of its day.

hypocrasLong pepper was also a favourite in spiced wines and digestifs. Half-remedy, half-inebriant, spiced alcoholic cordials have been around since the Romans, the most popular and enduring of which seems to have been the medieval ‘hippocras’, a red or white wine, infused with mixture of spices and sweetened with sugar or honey. But although the Greek doctor Hippocrates was many things, he was not the inventor of vinum hippocraticum. Rather, the etymology of this particular tipple was derived from the shape of the conical filter through which the spiced wine was strained, known to vintners as a manicum Hippocraticum – Hippocrates’ sleeve. Although production methods changed over the centuries, the name, and man’s enjoyment of it, stuck, and references to hippocras can be found well into the eighteenth century. A deliciously potent variant can be found in a late-fourteenth century English medical collection, found in British Library Ms. Royal 17.A.iii, f. 97v (edited in Hieatt and Butler’s Curye on Inglysch). A prescription for ‘Lord’s Claret’ (Potus Clarreti pro Domino), the wine is to be spiced with cinnamon, ginger, pepper, long pepper, grains of paradise, cloves, galingale, caraway, mace, nutmeg, coriander, brandy and honey. Kill or cure? I’m not sure, but you would certainly have had some fun trying.

By the late fifteenth century, long pepper’s hey day seemed to be over. John Russell’s Boke of Nuture (c.1460) provides a verse recipe for hippocras in which he states that:

Good son, to make ypocras, hit were great lernynge,
and for to take the spice thereto aftur the proporcionynge,
Gynger, Synamome, Graynis, Sugur, Turnesole (that is good colourynge);
for commyn peple Gynger, Canelle, longe pepur, hony after claryfiynge.

Its price was dropping, and, if the records of the household of the Earl of Northumberland in the early sixteenth century are anything to go by, long pepper was relegated to the bottom of the spice cupboard. The Percy house ordered just 8oz of the stuff in a single year, compared to a whopping 74lb of the beautifully named Grains of Paradise, imported from Africa.

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Capsicum annum at Kew Gardens

The new kid on the block was another long pepper: the chilli. Coming from the newly-discovered lands of central America, chilli peppers were cheap, easy to propagate, and simple to cultivate in diverse climates such as Spain and Hungary. It added fire and colour, and, on the  European market, long pepper couldn’t compete. It’s price fell to just one-twelfth of that of black pepper, a price that simply couldn’t justify the cost of harvest and transport. By the early modern period, it had all but disappeared from European kitchens, reduced to a relic of the medieval past to be copied out in recipes such as that for ‘red hippocrass’ in Nott’s The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary (1703).

But after centuries of playing second fiddle to the chilli pepper and the black peppercorn, long pepper is enjoying something of a culinary and medical renaissance. Recent clinical trials have highlighted the anti-inflammatory properties of pippali (Piper longum Linn.), Indian long pepper, whilst the Indonesian variant, Piper retrofractum, originally commercially cultivated on the island of Java by the Dutch East India Company, is beginning to make its mark on the twenty-first-century foodie scene. Packaged up in modern, minimalist lines by spice retailers such as Steenbergs, Sous Chef, and the Peppermongers, these fragrant, pungent little catkins were hailed by Nigel Slater as ‘the most beautiful spice of all’ in his column in The Guardian. Working now with long pepper as part of the range of twelfth-century sauces I am developing, I have to agree.

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2 Comments

  1. Svein H Gullbekk says:

    Since you provide some interesting facts on Pegolotti I am tempted to add a few items on the price of pepper in the mid-thirteenth century. Spices were always considered costly in the Middle Ages, but as the late John Munro asked, how costly were they? Records of pepper prices is reported at 4 shillings per pound. In comparison a cow could cost 10 shillings, a sheep 1 shilling 5 pennies and a pig 3 shillings.
    Many thanks for putting pepper in perspective.

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