The Pepper Vine
Pepper is the world's most important spice and one of the earliest known to man. It is prepared from the small, round berries of a woody perennial climbing vine, Piper nigrum. The plant, a native of the Malabar Coast in south-west India, is now widely grown in the tropics.
The pepper vine is a demanding plant. It has to be nurtured and tended with care. The plant favours a well-drained, red or yellowish soil in a hilly area. Its vines need to twirl up a strong hardwood support and they have to be pruned regularly. Susceptible to pests and disease, the pepper garden has to be carefully sprayed, weeded and fertilized.
It takes three years of hard work before the pepper plant starts to bear fruit. The berries grow in clusters which do not all ripen at the same time. Thus, harvesting is labour-intensive as the farmer has to climb up a ten foot step-ladder to hand-pick the mature berries, leaving the green ones for another day.
In ancient times, pepper was valued primarily for its medicinal properties. The earliest references made to pepper, over 3,000 years ago, were in Sanskrit medical literature of India. The word "pepper" is derived from the Sanskrit pippali. In the 4th Century BC, the Greek physician, Hippocrates, declared that pepper assisted the flow of digestive juices.
The History of Pepper
Pepper was one of the earliest items of trade between the Orient and Europe. Initially, the trade was controlled by Arab merchants who acted as the middlemen between India and Europe. Then in the 1st Century, the Romans discovered the workings of the vast wind systems of the Indian Ocean known as the monsoons. Using the monsoons, large Roman ships were able to make the round trip between the Egyptian Coast and the Malabar Coast in less than a year. The direct contact with a pepper producing country resulted in a great increase in the volume of trade. This increase did not in any way lessen the value of pepper; instead, it extended the use of pepper with the spice being used as a food condiment in cooking. In fact, so much pepper was being imported into the Roman Empire that it caused a deficit in the balance of trade. Pepper was regarded as valuable an item as precious metals and jewels. This fact was not lost on Alaric the Goth, when in 408 A.D. he demanded in return for him and his hordes not sacking Rome, a tribute of precious metals, silk and 3,000 pounds of pepper!
The fall of the Roman Empire brought an end to the well-organized trade between the Malabar Coast and Europe. And it was not until the 11th Century, after the successes of the Crusade, that trade with the Orient was revived. Spices played an important part in the mercantile successes of the cities of Pisa, Genoa and Venice, and the commercial prosperity that brought the East and West together, culminating in the Renaissance. Pepper was then, as it is now, the pre-eminent spice. In the Middle Ages, pepper was widely recognized in Europe as a means of exchange, being used to pay taxes, rents and dowries.
In the 13th Century, Marco Polo's travels and tales of riches of the Far East informed the Europeans of the exotic and productive region farther afield than the Indian sub-continent. With the increase in knowledge of geography and navigation, and fired by colourful tales of abundance of gold and spices in the Far East, European navigators began to embark upon great sea voyages. Sponsored by the Portuguese and Spanish courts, intrepid adventurers like Vasco Da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus undertook the perilous sea journeys to search for trade routes to the East. It was said of Columbus that, apart from mistaking the West Indies for the Far East, he was also responsible for naming chilli as pepper.
In Cuba, several sailors brought Columbus some bright red pods which were extremely pungent. It was assumed that these were pepper and they called it pimienta (pepper in Spanish). They were, of course, chillies of the genus Capsicum of the nightshade family and not at all related to the true pepper, Piper nigrum.
The results of these epic voyages led to the opening of the Far East, and in the case of Columbus, the discovery of the Americas. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch and British scrambled for the control of the spice in the East Indies and Malay Archipelago. The Malay Archipelago has, since earlier times, been an important spice producing region. Pepper was introduced there by the Indians during the period of the Hindu kingdoms in Java (100 BC to 600 AD).
Production and trade of the spice in the region grew steadily that by the 16th Century, Malacca, on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, developed into a great collecting centre, rivalling Calicut in India.
The Portuguese were the first to arrive on the scene and established a fortified trading post in Malacca in the early 1500s. The Dutch took control of the island of Java and started plantation culture of pepper there. The British opened up pepper plantation in the Malay Peninsula in the middle of the 17th Century. The United States came late to the spice trade. Towards the end of the 18th Century, American ships began to set sail to the Orient in search of spices, particularly pepper. The trade was dominated by the New England port of Salem. Between 1800 and 1811, Salem had a virtual monopoly of the pepper trade and contributed significantly to government revenue through import duties.
Pepper Trade Today
The pepper trade today encompasses the world with Western Europe, United States, Japan and Korea being the biggest consumers. The main pepper producing countries are lndonesia, India, Brazil and Malaysia. Virtually all the pepper exported from Malaysia comes from the state of Sarawak. Systematic cultivation of pepper in Sarawak was started by the White Rajah Charles Brooke in the 1870s with the "Gambier and Pepper Proclamationl". Ironically, Sarawak a latecomer, went on to become a significant producer. Starting with a modest output of 4 tonnes in 1870, pepper production now averages 30,000 tonnes a year. And "Sarawak Pepper" is now synonymous with quality in the spice trade.
Source: Sarawak Flavours the World, Pepper Marketing Board Malaysia 1998
From the shop:
Sarawak pepper, 200 g black pepper berries from Sarawak, the best vintage in Southeast Asia