Most people already know the importance of salt (the base of the word "salary" is indeed due to wages once being paid in salt) in financial history, but did you know that Peppercorns were the spice that launched the Nina, The Pinta and the Santa Maria?
Happy Columbus Day!!
As Americans, today is the day we celebrate Ferdinand and Isabella's desire to find a faster route for the importation of peppercorns from India. The pungent flavor of Peppercorns was integral to successful cooking, particularly in the days before modern refrigeration as a way to mask poorly flavored foods. Even today, peppercorns are widely used in America, as Americans consume over a quarter-pound each per year. After water and salt, peppercorns are the most commonly added ingredient. Peppercorn usage can be found in nearly every cuisine today, but was once used as currency. Once dried, peppercorns can last almost indefinitely if they remain uncracked. In addition to helping make food tasty, peppercorn can help aid those in respiratory distress as an expectorant and can help repel insects.
Columbus did not find peppercorns on his trip, but he did find that the natives used dried capsicums in much the same way. Not wanting to return empty-handed, Columbus brought these "dried peppers" back with him to Spain.
In cooking, it is very important to remember to ALWAYS use whole dried peppercorns and crack them yourself, just before using. The volatile oils in peppercorns (including the one that lends its distinct flavor, called piperine) give off a bitter flavor as they begin to dry. Piperine can even convert to isochavacine, a tasteless chemical compound.
Now you know!