delanceyplace.com 2/13/12 - romans and pepper

In today's excerpt - pepper and the cuisine of ancient Rome. Pepper was a rare and prized commodity whose value was almost that of gold. In antiquity, it could only be grown in the East. Pepper incited wars, was used to settle large debts and pay ransoms, and was found only on the tables of the very rich:

"The Romans were particularly serious about their food. Slave chefs would man the kitchens to create great delicacies for their consump­tion. A high-end menu could include dormice sprinkled with honey and poppy seeds, then a whole wild boar being suckled by piglets made of cake, in which were placed live thrushes, and to finish, quince, apples and pork disguised as fowls and fish. None of these opulent culinary inventions would have been created without ample seasoning—and the primary spice would have been pepper.

"Why has this particular spice remained so constantly attractive for us? I asked the author Christine McFadden about the importance of a bit of pepper in your recipe:

"They just couldn't get enough of it. Wars were fought over it, and if you look at Roman recipes, every one starts with 'take pepper and mix with ...'. An early twentieth-century chef said that no other spice can do so much for so many different types of food, both sweet and savoury. It contains an alkaloid called piperine, which is responsible for the pun­gency. It promotes sweating, which cools the body—essential for com­fort in hot climates. It also aids digestion, titillates the taste buds and makes the mouth water.

"The closest place to Rome where pepper actually grew was India, so the Romans had to find a way of sending ships to and fro across the Indian Ocean and then carrying their cargo overland to the Mediter­ranean. Whole fleets and caravans laden with pepper would travel from India to the Red Sea, then across the desert to the Nile. It was then traded around the Roman Empire by river, sea and road. This was an immense network, complicated and dangerous, but highly profitable. Roberta Tomber fills in the details:

"Strabo in the first century AD says that 120 boats left every year from Myos Hormos—a port on the Red Sea—to India. Of course, there were other ports on the Red Sea and other countries sending ships to India. The actual value of the trade was enormous—one hint we have of this is from a second-century papyrus known as the Muziris Papyrus. In that they discuss the cost of a shipload estimated today at 7 million sestertia. At that same time a soldier in the Roman army would have earned about 800 sestertia a year."

author: Neil MacGregor
title: A History of the World in 100 Objects
publisher: Penguin Group
date: Copyright 2010 by the Trustees of the British Museum and the BBC
pages: 258-259
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