Foodie Sarah Philpott tracks the history behind our favourite condiments.
In the UK and many north European countries we season our food primarily with salt and pepper. When we sit down to lunch or dinner, at home or at a restaurant, and usually before we even reach for the knife and fork we’ll probably season our meal with salt and pepper. Have you ever wondered why we do this? When did salt and pepper become so popular?
Let’s start with salt, which according to historical records, was first used in China. In around 450 B.C. a man named Yi Dun started the process of making salt of boiling brine in iron pans until all that remained was a highly sought-after substance: salt. This process spread through Europe about a thousand years later, thanks to the Roman Empire.
Salt was a huge commodity and Roman soldiers were paid partly in salt and their salarium gave way to today’s word for “salary.” The word “salad” also originated from “salt,” and began with the early Romans salting their leafy greens and vegetables. Throughout history salt has been used as a powerful tool to allow governmental monopoly and special taxes. Salt taxes long supported British monarchs and thousands of people were imprisoned for smuggling salt.
Salt was prized primarily because its use on food draws out moisture which can cause the growth of bacteria and food that could be preserved was highly valuable. It is believed that the Egyptians were the first civilization to preserve fish and meat with salt. This method was employed when food was shipped over, and fishermen in Medieval Europe would salt cod caught off North America’s Grand Banks, preserving them for sale at home. Contrary to popular belief, salt was not used to disguise the taste of rotting meat as it was too expensive a product to waste on such things.
In Britain, salt was first used to flavour food during the Iron Age when boiling meat in pits lined with stones or wood became popular, a practice unique to this country and Ireland. Because this procedure extracted all the natural salts from the meat, diners started to use salt as a seasoning. Cereals, which had only been introduced relatively recently, had also become central to the diet of this time and so salt was craved. Salt mining was such an important industry that early British towns clustered around salt springs. In fact, the “wich” suffix in English place names like Middlewich and Norwich is associated with areas where salt working was a common practice – and some continue to be to this day.
Salt remained the foodstuff of the rich during Tudor and Elizabethan times and its presence on the dining table was an indication of the highest social standing. Butlers were given very specific instructions on how to serve salt, usually in the ‘great salt’, a receptacle that also served as an adornment and would be made of silver or silver gilt. To ‘sit above the salt’ was a sign of social prestige according to food writer and historian Clarissa Dickson Wright. She tells us that the great salt was mainly placed on the table for show in wealthy households and less important diners would be given the trencher salts, which were individual plates made of wood or metal.
Salt was involved in such historic events as the building of the Erie Canal, the French Revolution and the drive for India’s independence from British colonial rule. French kings developed a salt monopoly by selling exclusive rights to produce it to a favored few who exploited that right to the point where the scarcity of salt was a major contributing cause of the French Revolution. In recent years, the promotion of free trade through the World Trade Organization has led to abolition of many national monopolies, for example, in Taiwan.
Salt was, and still is, a great source of superstition in Europe, with the belief that that spilling salt is an evil omen. A likely explanation of this is that Judas Iscariot spilled the salt at the Last Supper and in fact Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, depicts Judas Iscariot having knocked over a salt-cellar. However, this may not be the real explanation, as salt was once viewed as a symbol of trust and friendship and so to spill salt was seen as a rejection of these values and a person who did so would be seen as untrustworthy.
Pepper is salt’s more exotic cousin. Black pepper originated in Kerala, India and has been exported from South Asia for about 4,000 years. Pepper was essential seasoning in India (it was often referred to as “black gold”) and was of great value as a traditional medicine, featuring in early medicinal documents such as the Susrutha Samhita. Like salt, pepper was a rare and expensive commodity: the Romans traded in it and peppercorns have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. It is said that Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun each demanded from Rome a ransom of more than a ton of pepper when they besieged the city in the fifth century.
Pepper was popular in ancient Greece and Rome for its medicinal properties and long pepper was believed to reduce phlegm and increase semen. It wasn’t long before Romans who could afford started to use it to season their food and Apicius’ De re coquinaria, a third-century cookbook, includes pepper in many of its recipes. Long pepper’s high status also laid the ground for other pungent spices, like black pepper which is generally what we use today. Other types of pepper imported included Ethiopian pepper (Grains of Paradise) and Cubeb pepper, a type of long pepper from China.
In the early days, Arabia had a huge monopoly over trade routes and this continued into medieval times, while Italian states like Venice and Genoa also controlled the shipping lines once the spice reached the Mediterranean meaning that they could charge extortionate prices. As the rest of Europe tired of being out of pocket, explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Sir Francis Drake went out to establish their own routes and as it became more readily available, it became cheaper and ordinary people were able to afford it. Regional cuisines began incorporating pepper into their foods alongside native spices and herbs which resulted in typical spice blends such as garam masala in India, ras el hanout in Morocco, quatre épices in France and Cajun and jerk blends in the Americas.
Pepper was so valuable that a Guild of Pepperers was established in the UK in 1180 and was responsible for maintaining standards for the purity of spices and for the setting of certain weights and measures. Peppercorns were very expensive and were accepted in lieu of money in dowries, taxes and rent, often known as the peppercorn rent, the meaning of which is today very different as it now refers to a very small payment. In Germany there are records of whole towns paying rent with peppercorns.
In big (and wealthy) households, imported pepper was pounded in a pestle and mortar before it was served at the table. As with salt, it is debatable whether pepper was actually used to disguise the flavour of rancid meat as many rich people could afford fresh food, although poorer people may have used it for this purpose once extensive cultivation and trade made it affordable. The Victorian British working classes bought pepper in large quantities, usually in ground form, although it was seen to be dangerous and newspapers of the time were full of scandal stories of pepper being adulterated with other additives.
Yes, pepper wasn’t always so popular. During the Middle Ages and once again in the Renaissance period, pepper was associated with melancholy, and some opted to use sweeter, more sanguine spices. But with the development of modern French cuisine during the Enlightenment, pepper once again became popular as Francois Pierre de la Varenne, France’s first celebrity chef, encouraged readers to season their food with it, alongside a new companion, salt. It would appear that this pairing was favoured as pepper was considered the only spice that complemented salt and that the two did not overpower the true taste of food. In Britain, this practice was quickly adopted and we have followed it ever since.
So does everyone love salt and pepper as much as us Brits? Obviously, the French are fans but it’s noticeable when holidaying in Europe’s warmer climes that salt and pepper aren’t really used as much. On the Mediterranean, oil and vinegar are more commonly used although black pepper is a staple for Italian dining. In fact, until a few decades ago most Britons consumed ground pepper but the surge of cheap holidays and the influx of Italian restaurants in the UK during the 1970s might be responsible for our preference for grinders filled with black peppercorns. In China and Japan, as we all know, oyster and soy sauce is more typically available and in South America bottles of tabasco-style sauce (sometimes called ‘chile’) is prevalent. As world food becomes ever popular here in the UK, we may not use as much salt and pepper as we may once have but there is still a place for it at the table
A History of English Food, Clarissa Dickson Wright (Cornerstone, 2011)
Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking, Kate Colquhoun (Bloomsbury, 2007)