Grinding for Knowledge.
Grinderworks is part of a long and distinguished tradition. Spices are so much more than just substances. Their history is rich and diverse, and anyone familiar with them will recognise that spices are fully-fledged historical characters and will handle them with care, treating them with the respect they deserve each time they are used.
Grinderworks’ aim is to rediscover this history, to render it visible and to share it; to show people that handling spices carries certain obligations. Spices have steered and helped shape events from a common past. The history of the products we work with is a driving force behind our mission, our research and our future development.
But in truth, should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them.
— Christopher Columbus —
The History of pepper
The Romans and the Monsoon
As early as in the first century AD, a craving for pepper and other spices drew people to uncharted territories, with India as their ultimate destination. The monopoly position then held by the Arabs was literally circumvented by the Romans, their ships guided by the monsoon winds. From the Byzantine Empire the tailwind drove them towards India, where the harvest was in full sway, and back again in the opposite direction - the spices themselves acting as a counsellor and catalyst for ingenuity.
A renewed Arabic monopoly
With the demise of the Roman Empire, the route via Alexandria and the Red Sea to India came back into the hands of the Arabs. The dragons they invented guarded the pits in which the pepper was stored and discouraged bold adventurers who had been inspired to undertake long journeys in their quest for spices. Those who still persisted in acquiring the spices had to pay ever-higher prices for them. But even if they knew that the pepper plants in India were in flower, for many the route there was unknown or impossible to travel.
Genoa and Venice cut the mustard
Thanks to the spice’s value and history, the royal status that was proverbially conferred on pepper cannot be gainsaid. It was once used as a dowry, or sometimes as payment for rent or taxes. The Dutch term ‘peperduur’ (‘highly expensive’), which literally translates as ‘as expensive as pepper’, is no longer applied to spices, but in the Middle Ages, pepper was used to settle large bills. Alexandria, Genoa and Venice were monopolies of the pepper trade and spices were the open secret of their prosperity. The hunt for pepper was akin to the hunt for gold.
Wrecking the monopoly
As a result of the high pepper prices charged by Italian dealers, other countries also dispatched explorers. It was spices that ushered in the age of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Sir Francis Drake. But the pepper that Columbus brought back to Spain turned out to be of an entirely different kind: it wasn’t just the continents that he had mixed up. A few years later, Portugal did manage to find what it was looking for, and it went on to become the new trading centre for spices.
Portugal takes over the lead
Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope was prompted by an obsession with spices, with the Malabar’s Pepper Coast as the ultimate reward. The result was two sides of the same coin. Portugal attained the monopoly and installed it in what rapidly became a highly prosperous Lisbon. Alexandria, Genoa and Venice lost their grip on the status that pepper had for so long conferred on them.
The Portuguese monopoly was the fulfilment of a long-held desire, but was far from self-evident. Hendrik de Zeevaarder, who preceded Da Gama by over a hundred years, had already explored the coasts of West Africa extensively. The pioneer Bartolomeu Diaz had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, and had even travelled on to the Great Fish River some eight hundred kilometres beyond it, thus proving that the Indian Ocean was accessible by water. Pêro Covilhâ encountered him beside the Red Sea, and he eventually made it to Mozambique and Madagascar. When Christopher Columbus sounded his false alarm from Spain, Portugal’s great longing became increasingly untameable, and was only tempered by dreadful tales of terrifying storms. This persisted until 1497, when the expedition carrying Vasco da Gama departed with King Manuel’s blessing.
The VOC and the consequences
When Spain and Portugal acted together as one country to deny the Netherlands permission to trade spices in their harbours, the frustrated Dutch took matters into their own hands and travelled to East India themselves. The Dutch East India Company turned out to be a formidable weapon and did the old monopolies little good. The spices filled an eighty-year war chest. When England and France later joined in the game, the spice trade became increasingly cosmopolitan. Pepper was slowly dethroned, with affordable prices leading to the demise of its exclusive status. But at the same time, its quality diminished. Pepper is rarely experienced in all its glory. Pre-ground and mass produced, it has become but a shadow of its former self.