Salt and pepper

What are the origins of the British taste for black pepper?
Illustration by Glen McBeth

Pepper has long been one of the most popular spices in the world – not just Britain. The Romans traded in it, and peppercorns have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Back then, it was a rare and precious commodity, hailing from south India. Peppercorns at various times were regarded as portable wealth, and often more reliable than a government’s coinage.

Black pepper (and the more expensive white pepper, which comes from the same plant, but is processed differently) initially came overland. That’s why the Guild of Pepperers (nowadays London livery company the Worshipful Company of Grocers), founded in 12th‑century London, chose a camel as its symbol. It was the main spice that European explorers wanted when they sought sea-passages to the ‘Indies’ that would allow them to bypass the overland trade’s expensive middle-men.

The long-cherished view that pepper was used to disguise the flavour of elderly meat is now disputed – surely the rich could afford fresh food – but poorer people might sometimes have used pepper for this purpose once extensive cultivation and trade made it affordable.

The Victorian British working classes bought pepper in large quantities, though usually in ground form; contemporary newspapers are full of scandal stories of pepper being adulterated with other additives.

Until a few decades ago, most Britons consumed ground pepper. The modern popularity of grinders filled with black peppercorns must surely have been inspired by the large mills wielded by waiters in Italian restaurants from the 1970s onwards.
 

Answered by: 
Eugene Byrne, author and journalist
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