Though peppercorn’s march through Europe is well documented, the history of this spice in ancient Asia is less precise. While there is no doubt that the spice established itself early in both continents, Europe had misconceptions early on about the nature and use of the spice in its native land. These errors were then circulated as fact, misinforming Europe not only about the spice, but also the people who grew it. It wasn’t until the 15th and 16th centuries—when travelers from Western Europe established strong trade routes with Indian, Chinese, and Indonesian merchant cities— that these misconceptions started to disappear.
Before the exploration of the Near and Far East, even educated Europeans had a hard time understanding the cultivation of pepper. (This was a little unreasonable considering that pepper made up 80 percent of all valued spice imports in Europe.) For years, Western botanists perpetuated myths surrounded the spice. Famed Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides and Roman philosopher Pliny repeatedly would mistake peppercorn for long pepper and vice versa, despite the fact that their cities’ merchants were well aware of the differences and sold them at vastly different prices.
As late as the 1400’s, travelist Sir John Mandeville erroneously described white pepper not as black pepper with the husk removed, but as a separate gestation of berry that would miraculously appear on the pepper plant. But these fictions pale in comparison with one from Saint Isidore of Seville. This holy man once wrote an encyclopedia in which he insisted pepper came from a single “Land of Pepper,” where natives– due to their fear of snakes– set fire to their forests every year. This was what caused the peppercorn to turn black. Granted, this man was writing around 600 AD, but an annual snake immolation perhaps should not have been believed so far into the 15th century.
Sufficient to say, in 15th century Europe much concerning spice cultivation was still unknown. So when Marco Polo visited the pepper groves on the west coast of India, the fact these groves even existed came as quite a surprise. “There is abundance of pepper…it is gathered the months of May, June, and July,” he outlines in The Travels of Marco Polo. “You are to understand that the trees that produce pepper are planted and watered, they are not wild.” Though peppercorn had been in Europe for over a thousand years, many Europeans still didn’t know that pepper was a domesticated crop. Marco Polo also identified the many different locations in which pepper was grown (not just a single “Land of Pepper”). These locations included the island of Java in Indonesia, and the Malabar and Calymere coasts of India, whose exports would eventually find their way to European ports.
More accurate travelogues, like Marco Polo’s, coupled with more accurate academic study, eventually traced a more realistic picture of pepper production in the Orient. Only a hundred years after Marco Polo’s publications, Portuguese naturalist Garcia de Orta took a second look at previously revered academics: Dioscorides, Pliny, Mandeville, and Saint Isidore. After looking at what they had written about peppercorn, he concluded, “These writers all concur in saying what is not true.”
See also: “Pepper In Asia”