During the Middle Ages, black pepper (Piper nigrum) was so valuable, it was placed in the hands of the pharmacists, who doled out the peppercorns to prescription holders who had the gold to pay for them. Ransoms and conquering soldiers were paid in peppercorns. The amount of black pepper people owned was a measure of their wealth and “liquidity,” and the search for this highly prized spice was one of the motivations for Christopher Columbus to set sail. And as so often happens when there’s not enough of the real thing to go around, for several hundred years, the mania for black pepper led to the use of less costly spices with similar flavor–pepper alternatives that remain in use to this day.
Grains of paradise
With peppercorns priced out of reach for most, grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) became popular. A member of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) and closely related to cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), grains of paradise are cultivated in Ghana, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone. The plants grow about 6 feet tall with the typical showy blossoms of the gingers. Their grains, or berries, often called melegueta pepper, taste hot and pungent, without the camphor taste found in some cardamoms.
Today, we like to use grains of paradise in ground spice mixtures with meat and poultry. Simmering the whole grains with cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and cassia buds in red wine makes an excellent mulled wine that can be used for poaching fruit. We also add the grains to garam masala for Indian preparations of beef and vegetables such as cauliflower and potatoes.
Frontier Natural Products Co-op, PO Box 299, Norway, IA 52318; (800) 669-3275; fax (800) 717-HERB. Catalog free.
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