tabletop spoils of war

salt and pepperOne of my favorite books is Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. Material history at its finest. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson tells some of the story of salt’s modern companion.

Salt is now so ubiquitous and cheap that we forget how intensely desirable it was once, but for much of history it drove men to the edges of the world. Salt was needed to preserve meats and other foods, and so was often required in vast quantities: Henry VIII had twenty-five thousand oxen slaughtered and salted for one military campaign in 1513. So salt was a hugely strategic resource. In the Middle Ages caravans of as many as forty thousand camels — enough to form a column seventy miles long — conveyed salt across the Sahara from Timbuktu to the lively markets of the Mediterranean.

People have fought wars over it and been sold into slavery for it. So salt has caused some suffering in its time. But that is nothing compared with the hardship and bloodshed and murderous avarice associated with a range of tiny foodstuffs that we don’t need at all and could do perfectly well without. I refer to salt’s complements in the condiment world: the spices. Nobody would die without spices, but plenty have died for them.

A very big part of the history of the modern world is the history of spices, and the story starts with an unprepossessing vine that once grew only on the Malabar coast of southwestern India. The vine is called Piper nigrum. If presented with it in its natural state, you would almost certainly struggle to guess its importance, but it is the source of all three “true” peppers — black, white, and green. The little round, hard peppercorns that we pour into our household pepper mills are actually the vine’s tiny fruit, dried to pack a gritty kick.…

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