7

In Peter Martyr's De orbe novo decades (Decades of the New World, 1511–25), he thrice compares axi to something he calls Caucasian pepper. The following excerpts are from the 1912 MacNutt English translation:

In First Decade, Book I (1912, p. 65):

rough-coated berries of different colours more pungent to the taste than Caucasian pepper

In Fifth Decade, Book IX (1912, p. 186):

Something may be said about the pepper gathered in the islands and on the continent. I mentioned pepper as growing in the forests; but it is not pepper, though it has the same strength and the flavour, and is just as much esteemed. The natives call it axi. It grows taller than a poppy, and the grains are gathered from this bush just as from a juniper or pine, although they are not so large. There are two varieties of these grains, five in the row; one of which is half a finger in length, and its taste is sharper and more biting than that of pepper; the other is round and has no more taste than pepper. Its bark, skin, and kernel have a hot flavour, but not very sharp. The third grain does not sting the tongue but is aromatic. When it is used there is no need of Caucasian pepper. The sweet pepper is called boniatum and the hot pepper is called carribe, meaning sharp and strong; for this same reason the cannibals are called Caribs, because they are strong.

In Seventh Decade, Book I (1912, pp. 250–1):

Our pepper, of which I sent a specimen to Ascanio Sforza, grows abundantly everywhere in this country, just like mallows and nettles at home. The islanders crush it and spread it on their bread, which they soak in water before eating. There are five varieties, and it is hotter to the taste than the pepper of Malabar or the Caucasus. Five grains of ours are equivalent to twenty of Malabar or Caucasian pepper, and seasoned with these five grains the juices of meats acquire more flavour than with twenty of the other. But such is human stupidity that whatever is difficult to obtain is always thought to be better.

Is it possible to grow pepper (Piper) in the Caucasus and was this ever done? If not, what is meant by Caucasian pepper here?

  • It would have been in the Transcaucasus region, or some other place other than the mountains themselves. You could do a search to see if the temps drop below 60 degrees there. – John Dee Nov 20 '18 at 1:44
  • Theories so far: (a) it was some kind of black pepper that was traded over the caucausus, causing Europeans to mistakenly think it came from there; (b) white pepper, confused at to origin for the same reason (c) a substitute like Lepidium campestre which is native to Europe. Not sure at this point, will check sources later. – FuzzyChef Nov 20 '18 at 5:57
  • That he compares it to Malabar as well would support the trade-naming theory. – FuzzyChef Nov 20 '18 at 5:58
  • What about long pepper (Piper longum)? – liftarn Nov 20 '18 at 7:42
6

According to a travel report from Karl Koch, 1842: Reise durch Rußland nach dem kaukasischen Isthmus in den Jahren 1836, 1837 und 1838, Volume 1

What was sold in the Caucasus most often as black pepper was really Vitex agnus castus:

enter image description here enter image description here. This description is found in several books of the 19th century.

That plant yields fruit that are called

Vitex agnus-castus, also called vitex, chaste tree (or chastetree), chasteberry, Abraham's balm, lilac chastetree, or monk's pepper,

The fruits are reddish-black and resemble black pepper in form and to a degree in taste. Once popular because of their spicy-hot pungency when no black pepper was around or just for their slightly different taste profile, it fell out of use, as it has quite an effect in larger amounts as an anaphrodisiac (which is why you'll find more online sources as a herbal women's medicine than culinary uses. It lowers testosterone and has quite complex hormonal effects in general).

Sensory quality Aromatic, but weak aroma; slightly pungent and bitter taste.

Although the name of this plant in different langaugaes is a wonderful series of interpretations derived from misinterpretations, in English it seems to be also called Hemptree or even Cannabis pepper:

Initially, this plant grew in the Mediterranean basin through South Asia to the Crimea itself. Nowadays, Chaste tree can be found in North Africa, the whole of Southern Europe (from Spain to the Southern coast of Crimea), in the subtropics of Asia: the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus south of the Sukko River, Transcaucasia, Asia, Middle Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, India, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka.[…]
Aromatic fruits, spiky seeds and leaves of chaste tree are used as spices and added to meat dishes, soups, boiled and semi-smoked sausages, canned fish. These spices combines well with many other spicy plants.

South of the Caucasus, the Persians make a point of foolish western beliefs about decreased libido and call it desert pepper. While the Arabs just think of it as "smell is acceptable, its taste is hot and dry".

The earliest of Vitex agnus-castus with the caucasus comes when Prometheus was bound to the caucasus after stealing the fire: after he was freed he wore a crown made of it. Its habitat around the Mediterreanean is as wild as the claims about its efficacy. It's still used as a key ingredient in most Ras el hanout spice mixes.

  • I suppose if it's named "chasteberry" you might expect some anaphrodisiac properties. – Michael Seifert Nov 20 '18 at 16:56
  • @MichaelSeifert The plant contains quite a number of pharmactive substances. What they all do is not well known, doses hit & miss. They do influence hormones. But there are numerous sites out there claiming action in both ways. Then most names for this are flawed and the common complaint that Catholic clerics are too wild in their sex life is known since the middle ages. – LangLangC Nov 20 '18 at 17:06
1

Just a guess, but there's a spice blend called Ajika or Adjika made in Abkhazia in NW Georgia close to the Caucasus. It's usually made from red peppers (capsicums) today, but according to tradition was made hundreds of years ago by shepherds who used various pungent spices and herbs (including often raw garlic and horseradish, both of which have a long history of cultivation in western Asia and eastern Europe) as a substitute for expensive salt. I can't find a very authoritative account of its creation but as well as Wikipedia there are various articles on regional websites: Abkhaz world, Roads and Kingdoms, etc. Certainly horseradish and some other ingredients are fiery, so it could be what is mentioned but I can't find firm claims of pre-Columbian origin.

  • The description of ajika is indeed one hot candidate for containing also monk's pepper. Can you find any original/traditional recipes for that? I can't even read Georgian and the surrounding languages are not that easy either. – LangLangC Nov 20 '18 at 17:34

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