“The starting point for European expansion had nothing to do with the rise of any religion or the rise of capitalism – but it had a great deal to do with pepper.”
This article was originally published in Eaten Magazine No. 3: RARE
For centuries the bells of the Campanile would ring out over the Venetian lagoon, as soon as the banner of the winged lion was spotted off the Lido. Gliding through the aquamarine blue waters in the early morning sun were the ships carrying cargo more precious than gold – spices from the East. Their hulls were packed with pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, ready to be distributed and sold throughout Europe for huge sums of money. These were the luxury goods of their day, coveted by monarchs throughout Christendom.
We don’t have a record of how the first Westerner to taste black pepper reacted – after all spices had been making their way West along the Silk Road for millennia. What we do know is, that by the 14thcentury spices from Asia were immensely popular in Western Europe; they flavored the eel pies of the Italian city states, they were heaped into sauces accompanying joints of roast meat at Richard II’s table and they were sprinkled in wine to make hippocras throughout France. Spices we now associate with desserts, like nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, were at the time, used in savory dishes.
When these spice rich recipes are recreated today, the resulting flavor profile is distinct, oscillating between a grainy yet invigorating mouth feel and the vague sense you might in fact be eating the mouldy scrap of a decaying medieval manuscript. And while the vagueness of culinary texts from this period pose endless questions concerning quantities – there are no teaspoons or precise measurements to be found – the real question is why? Why were spices from India and Southeast Asia the most coveted luxury goods of Medieval Europe? The answer lies in their origin.
When The Forme of Cury, a collection of English recipes, was published in 1390, European maps of the world stretched from the Atlantic coast of France and Portugal to the Holy Land, sometimes including a confused stretch of North Africa. While the Crusades (1095-1291) had produced a familiarity with Near Eastern geography, there were no precise maps that detailed what lay beyond Jerusalem.
The spices that made their way along the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road to markets in Europe, thus seemed to appear from a mystical place beyond the known world. Legends of once great Greek and Roman emperors who had ventured to these lands had dissipated over time, producing an image of the East that was as routed in myth as it was legend. The enigma of spices’ origins meant they were inherently exotic. Arguably the allure of Asian spices in medieval Europe was not dissimilar to the prized nutritive power ascribed to ‘super foods’ from the depths of the Amazon today. Exotic origins mean hefty price tags for the consumable product.
The Silk Road, a complex series of land and maritime trade routes can be described as one of the world’s earliest highways, was where not only goods were exchanged but also ideas; philosophies, political systems and religions. Silk, precious stones, raw materials, animals, foods and spices were traded along the 7,000-mile route that stretched from the Pacific coast of China to the Mediterranean. The term ‘Silk Road’ is in fact a more recent terminology, coined in 1877 by the German explorer and geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, who named it after the lucrative trade in Chinese Silk that began during the Han Dynasty around 206 BC.
The interconnectedness of the ancient world may seem surprising to us in the 21stCentury, who think of globalization as a recent phenomenon of human history; to think that cloves from the Moluku Islands in Indonesia were being consumed by knights in 13thcentury England is pretty incredible. While some individuals like Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta and William of Rubruck travelled the entire length of the Silk Road, they were exceptions to the rule. The vast majority of individuals who participated in the global trade networks of the time had no idea how extensive these routes were; merchants and traders brought spices from one town to another, from one port city to the next, rarely venturing beyond their designated stretch of the route. If the full breadth of the journey was not completely understood by the traders themselves, it would be fair to assume the consumer did not either.
It wasn’t just the foreignness of spices that made them fantastically popular among the European elite; there was a cultural zeitgeist surrounding ‘The East’ that started with the Crusades and was amplified by the myth of Prester John, a legendary Christian patriarch who appeared in European chronicles from the 12thto 17thcenturies. Prester John was believed to rule over a Christian Kingdom in the East, which had been lost amid the Muslims and ‘pagans’ of the Orient. Believed to be descended from the Three Magi, the accounts of his kingdom are essentially medieval popular fantasy, in which an Eastern Christian King rules over a land filled with spices, unimaginable wealth, lush gardens, and strange creatures. Though Prester John was never found, a letter, supposedly authored by him found its way to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus in 1165. The Earthly paradise described in the letter was enough to inspire Pope Alexander III to send an envoy to find Prester John. Spices became conceptually linked to the search for Christian allies in the East.
Humans have an incredible ability to create stories in the place of truth when it isn’t within easy reach and some fantastic stories were inevitably fashioned surrounding the origin of spices. Black pepper was believed to come from forests in the depths of India (not entirely false, but not entirely true either), where it grew in tiny white balls on trees (almost). The story goes that these pepper forests were also filled with snakes (nope), so in order to pick the pepper, farmers had to light huge fires to first chase away the snakes before harvesting, resulting in pepper’s shrivelled black appearance (A+ for creativity).
Spices that we aren’t as familiar with today also became prized items for the royal pantry, like, Grains of Paradise. Though it does have a peppery flavour, it is actually from the ginger family, Zingiberaceae, not the pepper species Piperaceae. Originally from West Africa, today it is known as Melegueta pepper. The designation ‘Grains of Paradise’ first appeared in the 13thcentury and seems to be an early example of commercial marketing and branding. Paradise, after all, was believed to be located somewhere in the East, and what could possibly be more valuable than pepper from Eden itself?
By the mid-14thcentury galangal, a kind of ginger native to the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia could be purchased at the market in Mainz, in modern day Germany. One Sephardic merchant and traveller, Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, remarked as early as the 10thcentury, how shocked he was to find silver dirhams minted in Samarkand in circulation at this very Rhineland market.
Taste is a fickle thing however, changing with the fashions of the day. As spices became more and more readily accessible, they began to loose their symbolic value. While initially monarchs could utilize their consumption of Indian pepper as a way to differentiate themselves from the masses, once low ranking aristocrats and the emerging middle class were also able to bring pepper to their tables, its exclusivity was lost.
By the time François Pierre La Varenne’s seminal cookbook Le cuisinier françoiswas published in 1651, the spice cookery of the Middle Ages was on its way out. The new trendy cuisine coming out of France was all about simpler flavors, derived from the use of local herbs and delicate sauces, a culinary repertoire that shared little in common with its pungent forbearers.
The impact of Asian spices’ popularity, however, had long-term consequences, even as Europe shifted its gastronomic fashions. Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus had set sail in the late 15thcentury to find the maritime route to India, with the aim of importing pepper directly to Europe, at last cutting out the middlemen. The search for pepper did lead to India, but it also led to the Americas – and the subsequent European colonization of the globe.
Perhaps Henry Hobhouse summarized the effects of spices popularity in Medieval Europe best, when he wrote, “The starting point for European expansion had nothing to do with the rise of any religion or the rise of capitalism – but it had a great deal to do with pepper.”