Friday, August 24, 2007

A peppercorn ransom.

Today, August 24th

History, they say, is written by the victors. In the case of ancient history, it is also often written long after the event, and therefore of dubious accuracy especially when it comes to such specific things as calendar dates. To clinch the pre-story disclaimer, I would like to remind you, faithful readers, that a real historian I am not. I do not know exactly if this is the anniversary of the final sacking of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth (damn fine name, that, for a conqueror) 1,597 years ago. Either history or legend says that it is, and either will serve us well enough for introducing the topic of pepper – and particularly its price and value.

By the year 410 the barbarian (Alaric) was literally at the gate of Rome, the hub of a now crumbling empire. His ransom, it is said was the usual victor’s demand of land, gold, silver etc – and also 3,000 pounds of pepper. Certainly, the Visigoths were hungry, but the pepper was not to spice up the spoils of their pillaging and foraging. Pepper was an enormously valuable spice (at times it was literally worth its weight in gold), and was often actually used as currency.

The love of pepper seems to be part of being human – and it has been suggested that we have learned to like spices because they are good for us. ‘Spice’ is a culinary term, not a botanical one, and the foods we call ‘spicy’ are plant foods, and it seems that the ‘spiciness’ we perceive comes from chemicals which plants have developed as defence mechanisms against insects and infecting agents. The theory is that when we eat these foods, we are ‘borrowing’ some of the protective ability, thus conferring an evolutionary advantage over our more culinarily-challenged human competitors. We are all familiar with the general theory of anti-oxidants, but here is also some tantalising (but as yet unconfirmed) evidence for specific foods being protective of specific diseases – cinnamon in diabetes and turmeric in dementia for example. So, if you needed any excuse to eat Indian food, there you have a new one: it may well be good for your health.

The intense desire for spices drove much if not most of the early voyages of discovery and conquest. Pepper originated in India, in what is now called Kerala, and it has been traded since very ancient times – to this day is the most widely traded spice in the world. Alaric would have been confident that the Romans would have had good stocks of pepper - they clearly loved the spice: in the only surviving Roman cookbook De re coquinaria it is used in 349 of 468 recipes. They even used it in sweetmeats.

Home-made Sweets (Dulcia Domestica)
Little home confections (which are called dulciaria) are made thus: Little Palms (or as they are ordinarily called) Dates are stuffed – after the seeds have been removed – with a nut or with nuts and ground pepper, sprinkled with salt on the outside and are candied in honey and served.

And we think that salted toffee is a new fashion!

Also from this cookbook: we have previously featured recipes from this book for Flamingo , and for Green Sauce for Fowl, and Stuffed Dormouse.

Monday’s Story …

Roots, by request.

Quotation for the Day ….

The army from Asia introduced a foreign luxury to Rome; it was then the meals began to require more dishes and more expenditure . . . the cook, who had up to that time been employed as a slave of low price, become dear: what had been nothing but a métier was elevated to an art. Livy (Titus Livius), Roman historian (59-17 B.C.)


Liz + Louka said...

I'm going to have to try those dates - they sound interesting and good. Do you think they would have been using fresh dates or dried ones?

Unknown said...

The desire and need for spices is indeed more than culinary. Civilizations closer to the equator, where bacteria grow more quickly, use more spices. In cooler climates, less spice is used. It is interesting to note that women change their diets little during pregnanacy in cold climates, but drastically in warm climates. Spices are good for killing bacteria and masking food spoilage, but are not good for the pregnancy, in any climate.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Jack - that is interesting information about pregnancy diets. I suspect that part of the reason that more spices are used nearer the equator is that that is where an awful lot of them are grown! I am very interested in finding out more about the theory of an adaptive liking for spices - I love the idea.