Chilli, a 9000-year-old history
As a member of the Solanaceae family, the chilli pepper (Capsicum annuum) stands alongside tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines. It originates from Bolivia and the adjacent regions. Birds that can eat the pods without experiencing a burning effect, quickly spread chilli pepper seeds throughout South America, Central America and Mexico. Nine thousand years ago, pre-Colombian civilisations used chilli extensively to season their food, and we know that the Aztecs added it to what they called xocolatl, a kind of cocoa beverage flavoured with vanilla and other spices. Chilli was grown widely in these lands and was highly respected and used as a remedy. Meanwhile, the rest of the world remained unaware of this plump little fruit.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover chilli peppers on his voyage to the Americas. He found them on Hispaniola, one of the largest Caribbean islands which is now divided into two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He recorded the discovery in his ship’s log: “There is also plenty of agi, which is their pepper, which is more valuable than black pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome.”1 When he returned from his expedition in 1493, he brought chilli back by ship to present to the Spanish court. However, the spicy fruit was not greeted with the intended success.
At that time, Europe was experiencing a period of shortage of Asian spices. After several centuries of flourishing business, greatly enriching Venetian merchants, trade was facing a major crisis. With the growing wealth of the urban bourgeoisie, who sought to imitate the ostentatious lifestyle of the nobility, the demand for spices in Europe reached unprecedented proportions. At the same time, the Mamluks in Egypt and the Turks in Asia Minor began to tax merchants heavily. This combination of factors raised the price of spices steeply, proving particularly problematic for black pepper, the most popular and most traded spice. This triggered a keen search for an alternative to the famous Silk Road, in order to sidestep the middlemen so that spices could be bought directly at source. Finding a maritime route to the Indies therefore became an obsession.
This was the backdrop against which Christopher Columbus embarked with his three caravels, seeking to open up a sea route to the Indies that avoided the circumnavigation of Africa. He decided to set his course due west, to “buscar el Levante por el Poniente”, to reach the East via the West.2 Instead of bringing back coveted spices from his first voyage, he arrived with chilli peppers. He called them “Indies pepper”3, as indicated in letters from his doctor, Diego Alvarez Chanca. Attempts were made to cultivate them and, very soon, the seeds he had brought back produced fruiting plants. However, the nobility considered chilli as having too strong a taste. The fact that the plant was undemanding and grew well in the Mediterranean climate only served to increase this rejection, as chilli could not lay claim to the aura of prestige that surrounded the spices arriving from the Indies and the Moluccas. Many even believed that the latter had magical powers. Cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg came from faraway lands swathed in legend and mystery. These spices travelled great distances before reaching European grocers’ stalls, a long journey which included desert crossings on camel back and the navigation of several tropical seas, not to mention the constant risk of pirate attack and natural disasters. For centuries, spices were therefore extremely expensive and remained the preserve of the ruling class, distinguishing it from the working people.
The modest chilli pepper thrived in any garden, yet failed to capture people’s imagination, let alone become a source of lucrative trade. Those hoping to become wealthy from this new spice were disappointed. Chilli was relegated to the rank of ‘poor man’s pepper’, and it was indeed the most impoverished who adopted it to enhance the flavour of their simple, mostly vegetarian sustenance.