Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 8, 2022
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Mangia Bene

    The profits of the pepper trade were enormous, and there were several attempts to corner the market. The Portuguese were at the forefront of these efforts. After the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, opening up a new route to the Indies in 1497-99, several things resulted. First, Venice, at its height in the fourteenth century, found that by 1504 there was no spice trade in Alexandria or Beirut, the trade having been partially diverted by the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and transshipped to Lisbon. Second, the use of spices increased in the sixteenth century, especially in northern countries where they were used far in excess than in the Mediterranean. Eventually the famous spice market of Venice and her Fondaco dei Tedeschi moved to Antwerp and then Amsterdam. In order to increase imports of pepper and spices from the Levant, Venice granted permission in 1514 for spices to be transported by any vessel, instead of only the galere da mercato (merchant galleys), as they had exclusively been in the past.

    The Portuguese efforts in capturing the spice trade were finally not successful and the Levantine spice trade survived. The major markets in the Levant were in Syria, especially Aleppo and Tripoli. There are documents referring to the purchase of nutmeg in Syria in the summer of 1578, and a year later a list of goods captured by the San Stefano galleys of Tuscany include 936 pounds of sugar, 1,185 pounds of frankincense, 150 pounds of ginger, 1,114 pounds of cloves, 236 pounds of nutmeg, and 7,706 pounds of pepper.

    This Levant trade had many stages to it and the whole trading system was actually quite precarious. Imagine the adventures of a sack of peppercorns or cloves. It’s final destination may have been a shop in Nürnburg, but it first had to cross the Alps, being transshipped through Venice or Pisa, and through Aleppo, not to mention all the stops on the caravan route from the distant and exotic Moluccas, where they were harvested.