Chilis in a Sixteenth-Century Garden

Today’s post will continue in the vein of earlier ones on the Columbian exchange in the German kitchen by looking at what Leonhart Fuchs says about “Indian pepper” in his 1543 New Kreüterbuch:

Calicut pepper courtesy of wikimedia commons

Of Indian pepper (Cap CCLXXXI)

Names: Indian or Calicut pepper is called Siliquastrum by Pliny owing to the long and large pods and Piperitis on account of its seed being similar in taste and sharpness to pepper. I believe Avicenna called this plant piper caninum, which name it also had when it was first brought into our country. The other Arabs called it Cordumenum. Accordingly this pepper is a kind (Geschlecht) of the fruit that in our apothecaries’ shops is called Grana Paradisii. I believe that Actuiarius named this plant Capsicum on account of its seed being shut up in the pods orderly like in a box or chest. In our age it is called Piper Hispanum, Piper Indianum and Piper Calecuthicum.

Long Indian pepper courtesy of wikimedia commons

Its Kinds: I have seen four kinds of Indian pepper. The first produces large, long pods that are black-brown in colour. The second kind has pods that equal the first in size, but are red as miunium (menigrot). The third produces narrower leaves than the others and its pods are also narrower, longer, and red as minium. The fourth kind has large, round pods. Some are shaped like pointy hats, others like common pumpkins, but red as minium in colour, as we will clearly indicate describing its appearance.

Broad Indian pepper courtesy of wikimedia commons

Appearance: Indian pepper is a herb with a brown, rectangular stem which is an ell in length, with manyy twists and round branches that are covered in blackish-green, tender leaves. They resemble those of the nightshade or the laurel, but are narrower and pointier than those of the nightshade. Between the wings of the branches and leaves on the thick stems, the flowers grow out that are white in colour and commonly have five or six petals and a green star within. Once they drop off, the pods follow them, a finger’s length on the first and second kind, longer and narrower on the third, and round and broad on the fourth. The pods are first green, then entirely red, but black-brown on the second kind. And on the first two kinds, which we show together in one illustration, the ripe pod looks like a crawfish claw. The outer skin is shiny with smoothness and is very tender and thin. The fruit or pods enclose many pale yellpow, flat seeds that are of a hot and sharp flavour like pepper, indeed even sharper. The roots are woody and fibrous.

Place of Cultivation: Indian pepper is a foreign plant recently bought to our German land. It is grown in containers and herb gardens. It will not suffer frost and must be regrown or kept in heated rooms (der Stuben) over the winter. Thus it bears fruit again, as it did for me.

Season: Flowers in June and July and bears fruit in autumn.

Its Nature and Complexion: Indian pepper is very warming and drying, as can be seen from the leaves that are bitter in taste and afterwards from the seed that is so very sharp on the tongue.

Its Use and Effect: In many places, the seed of this plant is used in place of pepper because it has the same effect. It warms, separates, and consumes, strengthens the cold stomach and aids digestion. It drives out the wind. It draws resilient moisture from the head if it is chewed with mint (Bißmüntzen). It is good for the teeth and gums as it consumes all harmful moisture in them and guards against rot. Thus it makes the mouth smell good. It consumes the goitre and other growths if mixed with pitch and applied in a plaster. Ground with honey and spread on the skin, it makes the face beautiful and removes the blemishes on the same. In sum, it has almost all effects and virtues as true pepper.

Needless to point out that much of this is complete nonsense. Capsicum annuum, chili pepper, is a New World plant that none of the classical authorities could have described (Fuchs most likely confuses it with long pepper, piper longum). However, both the description and the illustrations make the identification unequivocal. We should caution that while Fuchs writes it is used like pepper ‘in many places’, we have no documentary evidence that any of these places were in Germany. Generally, chilis, like many other New World cultivars, were more readily adopted outside of Western Europe. The association with Calicut (which, unlike the ambiguous word Indianisch, clearly refers to South Asia) may be legitimately true at this point. Later German writers also know chilis as ‘Turkish pepper’ due to its widespread use in the Ottoman Empire.

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