Peppercorn, or “black pepper,” comes from the fruit of the piper nigrum and is one of the founding ingredients of the Western spice trade. So much so that Marco Polo reports the locations in which it is sold and grown, frequently and in great detail. But before this Venetian, we have record of an extensive pepper trade centuries before he ever put pen to paper (or, more accurately, put pen to vellum). Modern excavations put pepper’s origin in Kerala, India. These excavations also show early trade routes popping up between Kerala and countries in the Middle East by at least 1000 BC. In this area of the world, peppercorn was widely used, and was even included in mummification ceremonies, including that of Ramses II, widely considered the Pharaoh of the Exodus. (Of course, most of the spices Egyptians came across ended up stuffed inside mummies.) By 100 BC, peppercorn had traveled east into China, where the wealthy preferred it over their native Sichuan pepper.
Ancient Rome also highly valued piper nigrum, even using it as currency. However, they were also one of the first to use the spice extensively in cooking. Their writers include pepper in nearly every recipe, from adding a pinch in their desserts to adding an entire 2 tablespoons to flavor just four eggs. These over-peppered dishes were used by the elite as a common display of wealth. But pepper’s heyday in Rome was not to last. The long pepper, a genetic cousin of piper nigrum (and also from India), overtook peppercorn’s market value, becoming both the more valuable as well as the pepper of choice–though this would change yet again in 641 AD.
When the Muslims conquered Alexandria, Arab and Venetian merchants formed a monopoly called “The Muslim Wall”. This again drove up peppercorn’s value. But even their high prices failed to dampen the spice’s demand. Middle age recipes, akin to the Romans’, called for offensive amounts of pepper, despite the fact that a pound of peppercorn could buy the freedom of a French surf.
By the 16th and early 17th centuries, pepper’s price had peaked. Even Queen Elizabeth had her sailors sew up their pockets in order to prevent them from pinching peppercorns. And with the march of the 17th century, advancements in navigation and trade helped bring peppercorn to more ports. This would also bring pepper competitors and eventually a saturation in the market. Not because there was less demand, but because strengthening trade routes with India made it easier and easier to get a hold of the once coveted plant. At the same time, more exotic seasonings and even other “peppers” were brought in from the Americas, overshadowing the old peppercorn.
Over the 18th and 19th centuries, trade continued to increase, lowering prices, and allowing more and more people to buy pepper. Because of these advancements, the once ostentatious spice grew less and less expensive. And while in this century there remains a separation between high and low quality, color types (black, white, red, and green), and even brined versus fresh peppercorns, everyone still has a bit of “black gold” in their cupboard. What the French once paid their rent in, today is sold for pennies on the dollar.