Much of the modern world was shaped by the demand for a simple spice. It’s on every table. The spice was black pepper. The pepper trade seems to go back to Roman times and may be even older.
By the end of the first century B.C., there was a great expansion of international trade involving five contiguous powers: the
, the nomadic confederation of the Xiongnu, and the
. Although travel was arduous and knowledge of geography imperfect, numerous contacts were forged as these empires expanded—spreading ideas, beliefs, and customs among heterogeneous peoples—and as valuable goods were moved over long distances through trade, exchange, gift giving, and the payment of tribute. Transport over land was accomplished using river craft and pack animals, notably the sturdy Bactrian camel. Travel by sea depended on the prevailing winds of the Indian Ocean, the monsoons, which blow from the southwest during the summer months and from the northeast in the fall.
Along with luxury good the spice were transported to Europeans across the silk road and the Indian ocean with the monsoons. The cost of transport and trading raised the price of the pepper to enormous heights and made cites like Venice key trading centers.
Mairano was bold but not crazy. Such schemes had enriched Venetian merchants for generations. Since well before the millennium, his forebears had sailed to Alexandria, the ancient Egyptian trading town at the head of the Nile Delta. By virtue of its access to the Red Sea trade routes leading to Arabia and beyond, Alexandria was the chief entrepôt between East and West, the point where fine luxuries such as silks, perfumes, gems, and, above all, spices arrived from the most remote parts of Asia. For the Venetian merchant courageous or lucky enough, Alexandria was the gateway to riches.
But if the rewards were great, so too were the dangers. Merchants ran the risk of attacks by pirates, and they were at the mercy of the volatile, violent politics of the age. No insurer backed their cargoes; no coast guard patrolled the seas. They had to outmaneuver Venice’s perennial enemies and competitors, the Genoese. And Mairano would be doing business in a Muslim country nominally at war with Europe—its ruler none other than Saladin, who would later defeat the Crusaders.
On this occasion, the gods of commerce smiled on Mairano. With money borrowed from a wealthy friend, he shipped a cargo of lumber to Alexandria, and in return he brought back spices. He was finally able to repay his creditors—not in cash, but in pepper. The remainder of the spices he sold in Venice at many times the purchase price.
To understand how Venice became such a glorious city, it pays to look south and east, just as Mairano did. Over the course of a long career, Mairano, like countless other traders, had a stake in many deals: for timber, slaves, textiles, wine, ships, grain, metals, and more. But for reasons of simple economic alchemy, spices were the marquee good. As they moved between the jungles of South and Southeast Asia, where they were harvested, to their final points of sale in Europe, the value of spices mounted exponentially. They were small, readily transferable, durable—and immensely desirable.
Medieval high society had an insatiable appetite for spiced sauces, sweets, wine, and ale—not, as was long believed, to cover the taste of old and rotting meat, for spices were far too expensive for that. No less than in our day—indeed far more so, given the acutely hierarchical nature of medieval life—eating was as much about making an impression as enjoying flavor. And of all the spices, pepper was far and away the most important, for its consumers and Venice alike.
In Mairano’s era, Venetian traders in London sold a pound of pepper for a sum equivalent to a week’s work for an unskilled laborer. Cost alone ensured that pepper was as much an attribute of high rank as castles and coats of arms. Kings and wealthy prelates cured their ailments with pepper. They carried peppery pomanders to ward off pestilence, and went to their graves embalmed in myrrh and pepper. The most eminent medical authorities of the time insisted that pepper could revive flagging libidos. Around the year 1100, one Duke William of Aquitaine boasted of a week-long ménage à trois, claiming his exertions (188, no less) were fueled by a hearty dose of the spice.
Once spices arrived in Venice, they were unloaded for distribution across Europe. Some were resold directly to merchants arriving from the north. Others were shipped on barges up the Po Valley, and carried on mules across the Alpine passes to Germany and France. Venetian galleys sailed past the Strait of Gibraltar and onward to London and Bruges. As often as not, the cinnamon in a duke’s pomander or the ginger in an abbot’s medicine chest or the pepper appearing on a king’s table was at some point freighted and sold by a Venetian.
The spice trade was the backbone of Muslim and Venetian finance for centuries as they held the monopoly on the trade routes especially for the more expensive long pepper.
Before black pepper came to dominate fancy cooking in the Roman Empire, before culinary tradition made it ubiquitous in American food today, another pepper—the first type of pepper ever to reach Europe—was even more prized.
This pepper is called long pepper, and it first showed up in the Mediterranean around the sixth century B.C. Greek cooks took to it immediately. It was spicy, in a way that no other plant available to Europeans was at the time.
But long pepper is almost entirely forgotten today, even though it set the stage for black pepper to win a centuries-long takeover of spice cabinets. Why did black pepper go mainstream, while long pepper, spicier and more complex, faded into obscurity?
It’s a story of geography, of supply and demand, and of quantity winning out over quality.
The Piper longum vine grows in the north of India, and long pepper would have made its way to the Mediterranean through overland spice routes, reaching Greece in the same classical era when Socrates philosophizing and Athens was in its golden age. This pepper doesn’t look anything like the black pepper we know today: it’s made from a flower spike and is long, bumpy, and undeniably phallic. It does have the same active compound as black pepper, though, an alkaloid called piperine, which activates the human body’s heat-sensing pathways. Mediterranean people might have had spicy food before—mustard and horseradish grow native to the area—but they never would have tasted anything that attacked the mouth in quite the same way.
By the turn of the millennium, long pepper was a beloved spice. In the years since it first reached Europe, though, the Romans had learned to navigate the monsoons to trade regularly with southern India, where black pepper grows native to Kerala. With trade routes by sea controlled by Rome, the supply of black pepper in Europe began to increase. By the 4th century A.D., both long pepper and black pepper were being sold as fancy spices, but black pepper cost a third as much.
In the modern world, where black pepper is everywhere and long pepper scarce, food writers often hint or say outright that long pepper is the better pepper. (One compares black pepper to a “knockoff handbag” to long pepper’s on-brand luxury.) Long pepper was supposed to be the hotter and more complicated of the two, with a heat akin to ginger’s. But Roman recipes rarely distinguished between the two, and I wondered: was long pepper more expensive simply because it was rarer? Or was it actually tastier?
To test the question, I made two versions of cacio e pepe, an appropriately Roman pasta dish with only three main ingredients: pasta, cheese and pepper. One featured black pepper, the other long pepper. When I tried them side by side, black pepper was the more aggressive spice, announcing itself loudly before fading into a sharp tingle. Long pepper staged a more quiet takeover of my mouth, but once it had arrived, it lingered and grew in power. It had a pleasantness to it that made it tolerable for longer; black pepper’s assertive bite got kind of tiresome. Long pepper also had an acrid mellowness to it—its spice hit, but over a more floral note, rather than black pepper’s bitterness.
I’d call long pepper the better pepper, but the two tastes were similar enough that it was hard to imagine anyone besides a very picky and discerning guest noticing that their pasta was spiced with black pepper rather than long. Probably just because it was less expensive, black pepper kept growing in popularity: it was one of the commodities Rome used to pay off Alaric the Visigoth when he had the city under siege. It made it through the Middle Ages as a luxury item and Portuguese spice traders pioneered new routes to bring it back to Europe.
Unfortunately for the caliphate and the Venetians all good things must come to an end and in the early 16th Century the monopoly ended with the appearance of a Portuguese carrack in the Indian Ocean. Africa had been rounded and the appearance of that ship meant that the balance in Europe, the Middle East and China would forever be changed.
History changed because of peppercorns.