Piper Nigrum

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Piper Nigrum or Black Pepper is native to the South-Western Province of Kerala in India, where it grows wild. The fruits of this flowering vine have been appreciated or even venerated by humans for millenniums. So much that already in the antiquity, the Greeks and the Romans imported black pepper from Egyptian merchants for a fortune. In those days, peppercorns even served sometimes as an international currency. The origin of the spice remained mysterious to the Western world for many centuries, as the traders were careful not to reveal its source, to protect their monopoly.

In the antiquity and until the Middle Ages, pepper was so precious that it also served as a currency instead of gold. This French manuscript from the XVth century above shows merchants collecting and presenting black pepper to the King of France.

Progress in navigation in the late Middle-Ages allowed the Portuguese to discover the maritime route to the Malabar Coast in India and at last get a direct grasp on the black gold. The Spanish who received the control of the other half of the world by Pope Alexander VI in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, tried to reach India by the West. Instead, they discovered the Americas and thought for some time that they actually landed in India. In the absence of black pepper, they came across other colorful fruits with a spicy hot taste which they called peppers as well. These are today known as chili peppers, or just chilis, and will be part of another article of Scent-and-Flavor one day. Black pepper is today the most commonly traded spice in the world.

The trade of black pepper was so lucrative that it led the Colonial States of Europe to the apogee of their power. Here the vessels of the British East India Company in the port of Bombay in the 18th Century.

Piper Nigrum is a tropical plant requiring a warm and humid climate. The mature plant, after two to three years, will grow all year-long some very curious greenish-white flowers arranged in pendulous spikes and without much scent. These flowers later transform into grapes of green peppercorns that will turn red at maturity. Three grades of peppercorns are widely available today as condiments. Black peppercorns are in fact gathered as unripe green drupes and shortly boiled before their drying time. White pepper comes from ripe red drupes that lost their skin during the drying process. Green peppers are collected green and treated chemically or dry-frozen to keep their original taste and color. Each grade has a different flavor profile that matches different dishes and cuisines. Salt and Pepper are today our best companions at the table.

Black Pepper is a rich source of manganese, iron, potassium, vitamin-C, vitamin K, and dietary fiber. In aromatherapy, the health benefits of the distilled essential oil of black pepper are amazing. The oil is digestive, antispasmodic, carminative, anti-rheumatic, diuretic, antioxidant, and antibacterial. We understand now better why this spice was so precious in the past, for health reasons.

In perfumery, the black pepper note is mainly present in masculine oriental fragrances, to provide some intensity and warmth in the head and heart of the juice. A few perfumers took the risk to place black pepper at the forefront of their composition, knowing that some people would not like to wear such a common culinary spice note on their skin. For the ones like me who like pepper as much for its scent as for its flavor, here are my picks of the week:

BLACKPEPPER by COMME des GARÇONS is a fragrance with a stunning resemblance to the spice itself. A mild but robust base of cedar, musk, tonka beans and the interesting Akigalawood (a molecule fractionated from patchouli oil, now supplied by Givaudan, with a scent in between patchouli and agarwood) moderate the beautiful spicy top and heart note of black pepper and ensures a smooth dry down. The longevity and performance of this perfume are very good to me, making me surprised to read some rather negative comments about it. Most probably, this fragrance is doing better on oily skins and humid climates than in a dry environment. It is a good choice for Spring and Fall evenings.

Terre d’Hermès. One of the best success of Jean-Claude Ellena in his period of master perfumer for the French fashion house. This spicy and woody marvel opens with a bright note of orange that soon leaves the scene to the accords of black pepper and geranium. Cedar is the foundation of this superb juice, reinforced by some patchouli, vetiver and benzoin accords. Terre is one of the most powerful fragrances I know, with an excellent projection and sillage and a superb longevity. It is a good choice for long evenings in all seasons, and also good for the office if your position allows. Very masculine scent with an intense sensuality.

I discovered the brand of Erbario Toscano during my visit to the magnificent Cathedral of Sienna in Toscana, where it was sold in an adjacent shop. Cuor di Pepe Nero (“heart of black pepper”) immediately stroke my olfactive memory as it smells so similarly to Terre d’Hermès, one of my favorite fragrance. Intrigued by this resemblance, I bought the juice to compare it with Terre. Side by side, it is interesting to witness their actual differences. CdPN has a top note closer to lemon than to the orange of Terre, and its heart is also more floral than Terre. The base notes are however very similar to me. Longevity and complexity wise, Terre is outperforming Cuor, but this latter’s quality versus price ratio remains excellent. Erbario Toscano has a rather wide range of exciting fragrances, and I can also recommend Gocce di Resina and Violetta Nobile which are other beautiful compositions.

The fragrance collection of Montale is so broad and intimidating that most perfumery shops carry only a fraction of them, and this is maybe lucky so, as it would otherwise take more than an hour to go through each of their creations, and even longer to eventually chose one of them. To help us a little, Pierre Montale gathered similar fragrances into families with aluminum bottles of distinct colors. You can expect that in such wide collection, at least one of them is featuring black pepper at its heart. This juice is called Intense Pepper, launched in 2014. Some similarities with Terre and CdPN, with top citrus notes, a floral heart to soften the strong black pepper note, and a mild base of woods and resins and some light musk as well. For the ones who are not convinced by the longevity and performance of CdG, Terre, or Cuor, this is the fragrance you need. A real spice bomb for colder days, daytime and evenings equally.

Much Ado About THE DUKE by Penhaligon’s is one of these fascinating creations that binds perfumery with poetry. Duke Nelson and Duchess Rose are living in an olfactory fiction that sets the decor of their extravagant characters. The Duke is eccentric and frivolous,  preferring the Theatre and worldly parties to the company of the Duchess. “Flamboyancy isn’t a sin” as he likes to reply to the moralists. Penhaligon’s translated the character of the Duke into the contrast of a tender rose and a spicy black pepper, surrounded by vapors of dry gin. Leather and woody notes provide the background of the intrigue. This fragrance is exquisite for the night and cooler days.

I would love to try the controversial fragrance from Lorenzo Villoresi called Piper Nigrum. Comments are not always kind to the Master on this one, but if you trusted all the negative reports you read on Fragrantica and other similar sites, you would wish to become anosmic anyway. Better to trust your own nose and mind, and forget the detractors!

I wish you a wonderfully fragrant week.

Laurent

 

 

 

 

 

 

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