Saudi Aramco World: March/April 2014 - page 9

March/April 2014
nightshade family,
capsicum peppers
Capsicum annuum
contain a tasteless,
odorless chemical
called capsaicin
that gives them a
“bite” in the eater’s
mouth, warms his
body and—thanks
to the brain’s release
of endorphins in
response to the
burn—lifts his spirits.
Though it wasn’t
the black pepper he
had hoped to find,
Columbus had an
optimistic view of
the value of his new
pepper, and he surely
in his
presentation of New
World plants to his
royal patrons. Though
Ferdinand and Isabella
seem to have been
unimpressed, capsicum
peppers proved a popular
product in an increasingly
fast-moving world-trading
Jean Andrews, probably
the foremost authority on chile
history, believed the Portuguese
had capsicum peppers even before
they sailed to Brazil in 1500—thanks
to Columbus. That could be true,
since Spanish ships often docked at
Portuguese-controlled harbors in the
Canary Islands, at Cape Verde and in the
Azores—all stops for ships traveling to and
from Africa, the Mediterranean and later India
and the New World. Crops, livestock, spices,
gold, ivory, slaves—everything came through these
islands on the way to and from Lisbon, and surely
crews exchanged or sold goods and information.
More specifically, Columbus stopped at the Azores and
stayed in Lisbon for a week—even meeting the Portuguese
king—before returning to Spain from his first voyage to
the New World. For this reason, Andrews and many other
pepper scholars feel that it’s entirely possible that
seeds were shared with the court, or traded by Spanish
seamen, as exciting New World novelties as early as 1493.
They believe that the capsicums that proliferated so early
in the Old World were from Columbus’s seeds (
) and not those that the Portuguese
would later have found in Brazil (
Capsicum frutescens
). Nonetheless, it was the Portuguese and not the
Spanish who spread capsicums far and wide as they traveled
the trade routes that they had established in the East, Africa
and then India. Within 20 years, capsicums were on their way
into pots and onto plates all over the Old World.
In 1513, Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis examined 14 sources to
produce this map whose rhumb lines predate cartographic latitude
and longitude, and of which only this fragment, showing West
Africa, the South Atlantic and the Americas, survives. By this time,
chiles had begun reaching many Old World ports, the Middle East
and parts of Asia, and they were growing in the Azores, other
Atlantic islands and North Africa.
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