Thursday, 15 August 2013

Pepper, nothing to sneeze at

If there's one thing that has stayed the same since the Mesopotamians invented the shekel five thousand years ago, its economics. At its most basic level economics relies on human nature - which has remained a constant throughout the history of civilisation. Consumers will always want to pay less...and the less they pay, the more they will consume.

Case in point...Romans and black pepper.

Originally from South East Asia, black pepper first arrived in Greece during the 4th-century BC - but having travelled the land route from India, it was incredibly expensive, and only the super rich were able to acquire a taste for the spice. By the 2nd-century BC black pepper was being cultivated throughout southern India, reducing some of the costs, but it remained more expensive than the 'long pepper' (piper longum - a spice virtually unheard of these days and not to be confused with chili) grown in northern India...simply because the 'long pepper' plantations were closer by road to Europe than those in the south.

But all that changed when Augustus annexed Egypt in 30BC. For the first time Rome controlled the shipping routes to India, and for the first time freight costs from southern India fell below those to the north. Black pepper's price dropped overnight and demand sky-rocketed. More black pepper was planted in India, and farmers began growing the spice in Java and Madagascar. The 78AD prices Pliny gives us says it all. The previously cheaper 'long pepper' - still being road hauled from modern Pakistan through Mesopotamia to the Nabataean trading cities like Petra - cost 15 denarii per pound ($1500), however the black pepper coming from southern India by ship was selling for 4 denarii per pound ($400). By this time black pepper was appearing in most Roman cooking...and at $25 an ounce (one sesterce) almost anyone could afford it. A classic case of supply and demand. Black pepper got cheaper, and 'long pepper' disappeared from recipes. For more on Roman transport - you can read 'The Hitherto Unknown' - available from Amazon, just follow the links