To most Brits, pepper is a seasoning. Something sprinkled liberally and often thoughtlessly.
At the bottom of most recipes is the standard sign-off: “season with salt and pepper” … or the standard request (whether looking at a plate of shepherd’s pie or scampi): “can you pass the pepper?”
Travel back a few centuries, and pepper was so much more. It was treasured, a prime ingredient in its own right. In the most prominent collection of Roman recipes, ‘de re coquinaria’ compiled by Apicius (c. 900 AD), around 80% of the recipes contain pepper. Not just as an afterthought, but as a primary flavouring.
There was a steady flow of peppercorns travelling throughout the Roman Empire from Southern India. These established trade routes kept Italy at the heart of commerce. In the early 15th century, the spice merchants of Venice imported 75% of Europe’s culinary spices, more than half of which were peppercorns.
During the early-medieval period, European food was rich in spices. Pantries were stocked with cinnamon, cloves, cumin, pepper, ginger. It wasn’t just the access which The Spice Route allowed – but also the status associated with spices which made them so popular and undoubtedly the taste which delighted the medieval palate.
Round the mid-1600s, a shift started. It changed the trajectory of European cooking and saw richly-spiced food fall out of fashion. One explanation is pure economics: trade routes opened up, flooding Europe with spices. Supply outstripped demand and the price plummeted – meaning that spices no longer had an elusive and aspirational status.
The second reason is more subtle. French gastronomy began to establish itself as the pinnacle of culinary expression throughout Europe. Meat was at the heart of aspirational French cuisine and – instead of spices – butter, salt, meat stocks and gravies were all used to enhance and intensify that much-desired meat flavour.
The coq-au-vin, boeuf bourguignon, rich béchamels and hollandaise served at Louis XIV’s Versailles Court still form the basis of the modern European cookery. Spices fell out of favour altogether. In fact, pepper – ‘black gold’ which was once so prized it was used as currency – was now available to peasant farmers.
It was round this time that a dish from the Roman Empire, Cacio e Pepe, is thought to have been revived by lowly sheep herders in the Apennine Mountains. It’s a practical and nutritious dish. Just three simple components: pasta and black peppercorns (both, by this point, cheap and transportable dry ingredients) and cheese, made from ewe’s milk.
Cacio e Pepe remained a humble, little-known dish for the next few centuries. Very simple to make, very Roman in its taste. Its astronomic rise to global fame is an extraordinary story. It all started with two earthquakes which devastated parts of the Emilia-Romagna region in May 2012. The tremors hit warehouses which were storing Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano – which came crashing to the ground. Producers faced losing over 300,000 wheels of cheese (at an estimated value of €200 million).
It’s at this point that local Michelin-starred chef and maverick, Massimo Bottura, intervened. He created a recipe for ‘Risotto Cacio e Pepe’ (substituting the traditional pasta for Arborio rice – another product affected by the earthquake). Next, he set a date (27 October 2012) and spread the word across social media for the biggest global ‘cook-along’. “All 360,000 wheels [of cheese] were sold,” Bottura said on Chef’s Table, Netflix. “No one lost a job. No cheese maker closed the doors.”
It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that, the same year, Cacio e Pepe was suddenly branded the ‘trendiest pasta dish in Rome’. A few years later, Time Out New York labelled it the ‘trendiest dish of 2016’ – meanwhile in London, legendary pasta bar, Padella, put it on their menu and Tim Siadatan scooped the ‘Dish of the Year’ at the London Restaurant Festival.
Taste isn’t something which is ever static. Just as spices disappeared from European kitchens in the late-Medieval period, so they are creeping back in. European cuisine is reengaging with its North African and Moorish influences. The enduring popularity of Ottolenghi’s dishes trace old trade routes and have seen dried fruit, nuts and spices re-establish themselves in British kitchens.
The story of Cacio e Pepe suggests a happy return to using peppercorns as a cherished ingredient. Centuries before the concept of ‘black pepper’ was reduced to tasteless, old, grey granules shaken onto a shepherd’s pie, the Emperor Nero was said to delight in honey on bread topped with cracked black pepper. So why not take a new stance, and eat like a Roman. Instead of being an afterthought, liberate the peppercorns from your mill and make them the main event.
For our Pici Cacio e Pepe recipe, follow this LINK or visit our recipe section.