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Is this a PEPPER or a CHILLI?

By Nick Saxby  ·  27th June 2021  ·  Taste & Flavour

(the answer is neither: it’s a pink pepper)

To any of you who have ever wondered:

  • How did we come to MIX peppers, chilli peppers and peppermint with chocolate (and why these combinations can be such fun)?
  • Why are the names of peppers, chilli peppers and peppermint so easy to MIX UP in almost every language (except Nahuatl)?

… this week’s post hopefully has some answers, and we’ve highlighted some great bars (including a bundle to try them all out at once!).

Read on for a quick history of peppers, chillies and peppermint. You’ll also find out how and why they work so well with chocolate (and why they aren’t a taste or flavour, and why birds LOVE chillies…).  Or just skip below for some great bars from Bertil Åkesson, Georgia Ramon and Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé (and our special themed bundle).

A History of Chilli and Chocolate

As many of us learnt at school, that the discovery of America was an accident. 

Christopher Columbus was not looking for a new continent. Rather he was looking for a simple route to sail to, and trade with, India.  Hence the nomenclature of ‘West Indies’, ‘American Indians’ etc., as Columbus et al. thought they were in India, meeting Indians, etc.

The term “chilli pepper” is the result of a similar accident (and possibly deliberate confusion).

Columbus was searching for a new route to India as he wanted to disrupt the Venetian monopoly of the spice trade, and in particular their control over ‘black gold’; or black pepper.  But he didn’t find any black pepper on any of his voyages.  However, he did come across what the Aztecs called in their language (Nahuatl) chīlli (or xilli or even Chilpoctli, Chiltecpin or Chiltepin), which he initially mistook for cinnamon, another coveted spice.  

Realising that both black pepper and chilli ‘spice up’ food and drink, and given that Columbus was desperate to showcase the commercial potential of the lands he’d reached, he decided to call these spices “chilli peppers”. The result has been ENDLESS confusion. (If you want more on the etymology of chocolate; it’s more complicated; see here.)

The Aztecs clearly adored chilli, mixing it with all their foods and drinks (including drinking chocolate). Indeed, so much did they enjoy chilli that their definition of fasting didn’t mean not to eat or drink, but rather that they’d not add chilli to their food and drinking chocolate!

Chilli’s Origins

Quite where the chilli plant originated (or indeed which of the five different genuses of chilli plant came first) isn’t clear. However robust claims are made by Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico. And archaeologists have found evidence of chilli farming as far back as 8,000 BC, in what is modern day Mexico. Chilli cultivation has also been uncovered in Ecuador as far back as 6,000 BC (so unlike chocolate, where Ecuador appears to be ‘ground zero’ for chocolate cultivation, Mexico is winning the claim for the first country to cultivate chillies).

The reason chilli was able to spread far and wide (and why it’s so hard to pin down its origins) is thanks to its attractiveness to birds. Unlike other animals, birds don’t feel the capsaicin in chilli that gives it its ‘kick’ and ‘spiciness’. This lack, combined with chillies’ bright colours, leads to extensive snacking by birds who, having digested the chilli seeds, then spread these, flying far and wide and defecating as they go. By contrast chocolate had to rely on humans for much of its dissemination, and hence its slower spread.

Whether the Aztecs were the first to combine chilli and chocolate isn’t clear (it may well be that the Olmecs did this too, and possibly even earlier). But the combination is clearly popular. Indeed it’s worth noting that when the chocolate drinks ‘marketed’ by the Jesuits (and endorsed later by the Papacy) took off in late-1600s Europe, the recipes used were very similar to those used by the Aztecs; that is to say, the chocolate was spiced up with chilli and/or vanilla and sugar (sugar was substituted for different indigenous sweeteners like honey). And many of today’s most popular bars follow still these recipes.

The History of Black Pepper

Black pepper (or technically Piper nigrum) flowers on vines (similar to grapes), and is believed to have originated on the Malabar coast of India. Its history as a spice enjoyed by humans goes back to at least 2,000 BC and it was clearly traded in antiquity (peppercorns were found stuffed and preserved in the nostrils of the mummy of Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of Egypt from 1303-1213 BC).

The Romans were fond of pepper, and there are extensive suggestions, recipes, and menus that attest to its use. Its popularity spread even to Rome’s enemies: Alaric, King of the Visigoths, was (initially) persuaded not to sack Rome for a payment that included 3000 pounds of pepper. And despite the various sackings of Rome by his successors, including the Ostrogoths, Vandals and then the Normans, black pepper’s popularity and usage continued in medieval Europe.

Quite when, who, or how chocolate makers and cooks figured out that black pepper combines well with chocolate we’ve not (yet) had much luck in tracking down (please do send in any old recipes or ideas!).

But, clearly, black pepper works really well with chocolate. See below for a great example: Bertil Åkesson’s wild Voatsiperifery black pepper dark chocolate bar from Madagascar.

There are now estimated to be over 2000 different forms of black pepper, including white, green and red variants depending on how and when the black pepper is picked and processed. However, PINK PEPPER, (including the Åkesson one below) is a completely different berry, from the Schinus molle shrub, commonly called the Peruvian Peppertree (but until Bertil, we’re not aware of anyone else combining it with chocolate).

…And Peppermint?

Peppermint can be dated back, again, to the Romans (Pliny wrote a history of it), and possibly even further back to the Egyptians (Mentha piperita and dried leaves have been discovered in several pyramids). But we’re not really sure that what Pliny et al. referred to as ‘peppermint’ is the same herb that we now enjoy, with claims being made that what we now call peppermint is a hybrid of water mint and spearmint (Mentha aquatica and Mentha spicata) crossed in 17th-century England.

The benefits attributed to peppermint are extensive; for example, it’s been widely used in Eastern and Western traditional medicine as an aromatic, antispasmodic and antiseptic to deal with indigestion, nausea, sore throat, colds, toothaches, cramps, cancers, gout and much more! And its palatability enabled it to make the jump into confectionery (it is now the number one flavour for non-chocolate, hard candies in the US) and indeed into chocolate (although this is relatively recent; ‘After 8s’ were invented only in 1962, versus 1932 for the ‘Chocolate Orange’).

Intriguingly there is some evidence that the Aztecs, and their predecessors in Mesoamerica, used another pepper, mecaxóchitl (aka Mexican pepperleaf) in their drinking chocolate. And this mecaxóchit spice is known for its eucalyptus and minty notes; so perhaps the Aztecs also invented ‘peppermint’ chocolate?

So what’s so special about chilli pepper, black pepper, and peppermint?

Chilli, pepper, and peppermint are neither tastes nor flavours. They work by a process called “chemesthesis”; that is to say they stimulate chemical reactions on our skin and mucous membranes. In particular, there are a series of nerves running from your eye down to your mouth called the trigeminal nerve, which reacts to the likes of capsaicin, piperine and menthol. And these spices and herbs stimulate nervous reactions similar to that when you touch something hot (TRPV1 for chilli with capsaicin and peppers with piperine) or when you touch something cool (TRPM8 for mint and menthol).

We know that (most) other animals detect and dislike spiciness, and hence why cats, dogs, etc. won’t (normally) eat chillies. And we also know birds lack these trigeminal reactions and hence why they have no problem consuming and spreading chillies as they migrate. 

What’s more puzzling is why we humans often have such a desire to try super spicy foods. There are lots of theories about why humans enjoy “risk taking”, and if you’d like to put them to the test, we HEARTILY recommend you brave Georgia Ramon’s “Carolina Reaper” which really is a super spicy bar. Alternatively, try one of Bertil’s Pepper bars, or Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé with peppermint.  Or try all with this bundle (and save 15% on the normal retail price).

As ever, thank you for your support (and do write in with comments or suggestions). And in particular, if after reading this email / blog, you’d be interested in joining a “FLAVOUR AND TASTE” focused virtual tasting, please let us know HERE (we are planning to start these in September, along with an “ENVIRONMENTAL”  focused virtual tasting too, and we would love your input).

Spencer