We tend to forget that once pepper was not so easily available, in fact it was worth more than gold – famous kings were buried with it, it inspired the exploration of the New World and when Rome fell one of the ransoms the people had to pay was pepper. In the past it was used as currency, the once priceless commodity has a fascinating history and it is no wonder really that it remains the King of Spices, ranked as the third most popular ingredient added to recipes due to its unique, irresistible pungency.
The seed berries of the Piper nigrum vine; peppercorns originate from the Malabar Coast of India and are generally thought to be the oldest spice in existence, harvested as long ago as 1000 BC. Today the precious spice is responsible for over one quarter of the world’s spice trade and has been the most widely traded spice for the last 3,000 years. Peppercorns have long been recognized for their medicinal properties, as they are said to ease respiratory distress, heal skin conditions and deter insects. The secretive Arab sea traders were the first to sell the luxurious spice at exorbitant prices which only the immensely wealthy could afford. It was traded in Egypt, Rome and Greece. The mummy of Ramses II was found with black peppercorns stuffed in the nostrils, put there as part of the mummification ritual, illustrating the importance and expense of the spice of Kings.
The secret source of the prized spice was out and the race was on – the Spice Trade became fiercely competitive and it is one of the factors which prompted Christopher Columbus to discover the New World when, in fact, he was seeking the ‘Spice Islands’ instead.
In the Middle Ages, the Portuguese and then the Dutch controlled the trade, by which stage pepper was worth more than gold and the individual seeds were a respected currency. The Dutch have a favourite expression – peperduur or ‘pepper expensive’ which shows just how valuable the spice was. Later on, in the Mediterranean, the leading Italian powers dominated the trade, which helped to fund the rise of Venice and Genoa.
Black Pepper as an Essential Oil
Black Pepper is used in aromatherapy for the healing properties it provides and works well in massage oils, creams and lotions for its skin warming attributes. The aroma of Black Pepper essential oil is reminiscent to freshly ground peppercorns, but it is a bit more complex with hints of green and perhaps a bit of floral. One major advantage of Black Pepper is that it doesn’t irritate your eyes or make you sneeze like ground peppercorns can.
Aromatically, Black Pepper essential oil shines best when incorporated into blends with other essential oils and helps to perk up and add heat and spice to your blends. It is a middle note and can help to bring together fleeting top notes and heavy base notes. Black Pepper Oil blends well with most other essential oils including other spice oils, citrus and floral oils, combining particularly nicely with Clary Sage, Frankincense, Geranium, Lavender, Orange, Rosemary, Tea Tree, Vetiver and Ylang Ylang.
Therapeutically, Black Pepper helps to improve circulation and can help to ease the pain of aching muscles. I have used it, appropriatly diluted to help when clients suffering from arthritis. Emotionally, Black Pepper essential oil is stimulating and is a good choice for inclusion in blends intended to help enhance alertness and stamina. Black Pepper should be avoided before bedtime.
So next time you are glibly grinding black rain onto your food, stop and think for a moment about the phenomenal historical impact of the popular spice. Luckily today we have a plentiful supply sourced from all over the world, but once upon a time pepper was partly responsible for the rise and fall of empires and was stuffed into the nostrils of Kings.