The usual trend with food is: the world gets smaller, and more ingredients become available. With pepper, the reverse is true. In Medieval Europe people cooked with an enormous range of peppers – common piper nigrum and its many relations. Some close and some more distant.

In 1340 when Florentine merchant Francesco Pegolotti listed his inventory of 288 spices, it included white pepper, long pepper, grains of paradise, cubeb pepper and round black pepper. Cubeb pepper frequently appeared in Medieval Polish recipes, and it was also used in the fourteenth century English collection of recipes – Forme of Cury – for flavouring dishes like ‘rabbits (connynges) in syrup’. We know that medieval cooks in northern France often used long pepper, and at the Court of Burgundy in the fifteenth century, grains of paradise took preference over the common black pepper.

when Florentine merchant Francesco Pegolotti listed his inventory of 288 spices, it included white pepper, long pepper, grains of paradise, cubeb pepper and round black pepper

The booming spice trade meant that there were a lot of traders trading a lot of spices. And medieval recipes held the art of spicing dishes in high regard. Historian WE Mead describes how “cooks…prided themselves upon the number of incongruous elements they could combine in one dish without making it uneatable…they catered for men and women…whose palates were dulled by sharp sauces, by spiced wines and by pepper, mustard and ginger and cubebs and cardamom and cinnamon.”

Toward the end of the 15th century, Venice was importing 1,000 tons of peppercorns per year – making its fortune from the monopoly it had on trade with the Middle East. This inspired the Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gama, to set off in search of new trade routes. And in 1498 he struck gold when he landed on India’s Malabar coast. Soon ships laden with peppercorns were doing a roaring trade in Indian peppercorns – known as “black gold”. But with such high prices, the prized Indian peppers didn’t displace Europe’s diverse array of spices and seasonings which had been traded for centuries . And for many years, chefs were able to pick and choose from the most enormous array of spices which were being traded throughout Europe.

Matching salt ‘n pepper shakers on a refectory dining table, dispensing tasteless flecks.
And grains of rice to stop the dried pepper from clumping

Leap forward to the twentieth century, and the national obsession with pepper had dwindled to stale pots of pre-ground pepper. Matching salt ‘n pepper shakers on a refectory dining table, dispensing tasteless flecks. And grains of rice to stop the dried pepper from clumping – to keep it ‘fresh’ for as long as possible. Months…years perhaps. 

Around the time that fondues became fashionable though, people rediscovered the beauty of freshly ground pepper. And soon everybody had a wooden grinder on their wedding list. Italian restaurants allocated waiters to be Chief Grinder, arming them with increasingly large weapons to dash from table to table, seasoning dishes in front of the diners’ very eyes.

And then – as is the way with food trends – freshly ground black pepper suddenly fell out of fashion again. Mocked as a retro. And so a pepper backlash began. “Pepper…is a fickle spice – it can be used well, but add too much, and your food tastes cheap and crass” wrote food writer and anti-pepper ringleader, Sara Dickerman, in 2012. As momentum gathered, others joined in: “it makes food taste the same”, “why’s it used on everything?”, “it’s lazy!” critics cried.

Pepper…is a fickle spice – it can be used well, but add too much,
and your food tastes cheap and crass

Quite right. We’ve got a lot to learn from our discerning forefathers, who were familiar with a far wider range of peppers that we are. Freshly-ground, strong black pepper doesn’t enhance every dish. And quite often more subtle flavours work far better – the light, coconut flavours of Grains of Paradise are a far better match with fish than a heavier, spicy Telicherry pepper.

Pepper is now grown all around the world. And its taste depends on a lot of things. A wine merchant recognises that a Chardonnay from Burgundy is very different from a Chardonnay grown in a warmer climate like Australia. But peppers’ ‘terroir’ is rarely recognised by cooks – many of whom freely use pepper as the all-important finishing flavour in a dish.

So we decided to investigate here at Sous Chef, and have pulled together a guide to help.

Have you cooked with any “Medieval Peppers” like long, cubeb or grains of paradise? How did you use them? And how did the tastes differ from the common black peppercorn?