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  • In much of Western Europe and America, seasonings mean salt and pepper.

  • They are so strong a pairing that we even use them to describe people --think of George Clooney and his trademark salt and pepper hair.

  • But where did they come from, and why do they form such a ubiquitous pairing?

  • Salt is essential for life, and it's been used since prehistoric times, either scraped from saltwater deposits, harvested from salty lakes, or mined from underground.

  • It's one of the earliest food industries, and one of the most important commodities in the world.

  • It makes food taste better, but it's also vital for preservation - whether of meat or vegetables.

  • Methods for producing and controlling it were developed by all the classic civilisations, most notably the Romans, who left their mark on modern day language with their word for saltsal.

  • Roman soldiers received their salarymoney to buy saltand salads were vegetables and greens seasoned with salt.

  • In the medieval period salt was expensive, and frequently controlled by the state.

  • Huge, ornate vessels for the table were made out of gold and silver, dominating dinner tables, and indicating very clearly who was of high status.

  • Sitting below the salt--i.e. not on the highest table--well, clearly you weren't exactly exalted.

  • Having salt on the table was as much for show as practicality.

  • For dishes were seasoned in the kitchen, but adding salt to one's meat--with the tip of the knife--was common practice, and the uncertain noble could buy written advice on exactly how salt etiquette worked along with the even thornier question of how to carve.

  • But how did pepper come to join it?

  • It was one among a wide range of spices available to the medieval cook, and it was expensive--in the 1430s one pound of peppercorns cost as much as a pig.

  • In the late 15th Century, the Portuguese took control of Malabar in east India, and started cultivating black pepper on a large scale.

  • Prices fell, in line with over supply, and pepper became more readily available.

  • By the 16th Century the phrase "peppercorn rent" was in use, to mean a nominal sum.

  • The real boost though, came with a change in culinary fashion to favour the French.

  • They loved black pepper, and their chefs were busy tidying and simplifying medieval cuisine, delineating more firmly sweet from savoury, and codifying which ingredients worked with which.

  • Salt was obviously savoury.

  • Pepper tended that way, and so the fashionable French-style dishes of the next century used both, together, and with fewer and fewer other spices.

  • By the Victorian age, salt and pepper were coming together as standard seasonings.

  • However, other forms of pepper vied with black, and cayenne also appeared frequently in cookery books.

  • Salt was still on the table, now in small salt cellars, no longer just for the privileged few.

  • In 1911 the Morton Salt Company of Chicago patented an easy-flow salt and salt shakers could finally take off.

  • During the 20th Century, pepper shakers joined them.

  • Then, as package holidays introduced Brits to freshly ground pepper at the table, pepper mills replaced the shakers.

  • Phew.

  • It's not a ubiquitous combination everywhere though--other cultures might still have the salt but replace the black pepper with chilli.

  • And let us not forget the pickles, the sambals, the vinegars, the fish sauces and the salsas.

  • Can I make room on my table and have them all?

In much of Western Europe and America, seasonings mean salt and pepper.

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