Quick take – Pepper

Bon Appetit thinks you’re using too much pepper, but medieval Europeans think you’re not using nearly enough.

This article popped up in my feed a week ago, and it literally invited me to reply, so here it is, a quick history of pepper in Western cuisine. The author, Molly Baz, says:

Can somebody please tell me when salt and black pepper became automatically, inevitably linked together? At what point in the long history of cooking did someone taste a peppercorn and think to themselves, “Hey, this reminds me a lot of that salt stuff we harvest from the sea and have come to know and love. Maybe we should henceforth use them in tandem in everything we cook! Never again shall a salt crystal stand alone. Salt AND pepper, forever and always!”

So, from our modern perspective (especially given the way professional chefs cook), it makes sense to assume salt came first in this relationship. After all, as Baz points out, salt makes food tastes more like itself – it’s not a different flavor, its a flavor enhancer.

But the salt/pepper relationship almost certainly worked the other way around. According to historian Paul Friedman, medieval Europeans put so much black pepper on their food that it tasted spicy. This is in a time before chili peppers were available outside of the American continents, so this was pretty much the only way to make food spicy. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking: But plenty of cuisines outside of America use chilies and spicy food is such a part of those cultures. Yes. And that has only been the case for about the last 300 years. Related: tomatoes have only been available in Italy for about the same amount of time.) On the other hand, it’s not clear how much, if any, salt medieval Europeans ate. While pepper shows up in trade records because it only comes from islands in the Indian Ocean, salt can be harvested from the sea, so it could be produced locally anywhere with coastline. This means it doesn’t show up very much in medieval sources because people didn’t make a habit of writing down what they were doing. They wrote down things like trade agreements or land use permits so that a record existed for the future in case someone made a legal challenge.

Friedman claims that the medieval taste for spicy food descended from the kind of food they ate under the Roman Empire, specifically garum, a fermented fish paste that the Romans put on everything. But garum was no longer available in most parts of Europe after the Empire’s infrastructure collapsed and it became harder to reliably trade across long distances. But it’s possible that some people kept the garum dream alive by incorporating other really salty ingredients into their food, like olives or anchovies, but this would probably have been kept to the Mediterranean, since it was (and still is) hard to ship perishable foods.

But pepper is not perishable when it’s dried. In fact, pepper was so reliable and in such high demand that it was used as currency by Mediterranean merchants. I thought this claim was way overstated the first time I saw it, but my research has really confirmed it. Merchants would ask to have their share of profits provided in pepper (as opposed to other goods or silver currency) because pepper had the most reliably consistent value in their world. Genoese silver might be worth a lot less in a year, and who knew what the going rate would be for saffron (the world’s most expensive spice), but pepper was solid. Everyone always wanted pepper. To cook with, to take as medicine, pepper was where it was at.

So it’s not when salt adopted pepper, but when pepper allowed salt to come along for the ride. My guess is when industrialization made salt production cheap and consistent and shipping reliable. Paired with this, Europeans (obviously) slowly lost their taste for spicy food as trade competition between Europeans and branches of the Ottoman Empire made spices imported from the Indian Ocean really expensive. Trade monopolies made it hard for other countries to get consistent and affordable access to their favorite goods, so after about the mid-sixteenth century only the countries that had a direct colonial presence really reaped the benefits of those regional products – like Spain in most of the Americas. By the time those monopolies were broken or transferred to another empire, tastes had changed and Europeans had their sights set on different goods, like sugar in North America, and tea and cotton in Asia. Spices like pepper still had a market, but it was much smaller in Europe than it had been centuries before, and now spicy food had a racial association – only “natives” ate spicy food, because European tastes had become more “refined.”

But lucky for us, spice is making a comeback, and we’ll always have salt and pepper.