There is no doubting Middlewich is a salt town… but what about salt’s traditional partner pepper? This condiment rarely rates a mention. Yet Middlewich – Nantwich and Chester too – all have Pepper Streets. Why?
Not uncommon as a place-name, the story behind it is full of Eastern promise. Medieval streets specialised in particular products - think ‘Oatmarket’ (grain) or, Shambles’ (meat). Trading here, then, would be dealers in scents and spices, ‘pepper’ eventually becoming a general name. Most popular? Ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, saffron, all sorts of varieties of pepper (a very important one), pungent and gingery galangal, and cardamom.
Special occasion fare indeed, because these were expensive luxuries. Transport costs from Asia, and of course multiple merchants’ mark-ups, saw to that. Aromas bringing suggestions of the mystical Orient no doubt heightened customer appeal. So how was it used? Recipes from centuries ago are revealing…
Spices, dried and powdered, would first be mixed with wine, vinegar, tart fruit juices, or stock, and put in toward the end of the cooking process. Savoury flavours were not necessarily separated from sweet ones… sweet ‘n’ sour combinations being quite usual. Instead of just a pinch or teaspoon, good-sized quantities were added. Reason? People believed spices improved digestion, were stimulants - or even cures. Bright food colouring, from plant dyes, was highly desirable too. Saffron was valued for its yellowness. Often medically advised, recipes might call for ‘sugar, great plenty’. How attitudes have changed!
Locating - and controlling - sources of all those wonderful ingredients was vital, particularly from the 15th century. Inevitably there was competition to find sea routes to the East Indian Spice Islands (now Indonesia)… and load lucrative cargoes. Simply put, the world opened up. Today’s globalism can be traced back to this quest. Quite a thought to hold! From the late 17th century the taste for spices waned and gradually range and availability shrank. Pepper was left as chief contender. Salt had always been essential, so it was inevitable these two became a popular pairing.
Did the aristocratic Barons of Kinderton, aloof in their stronghold, once ensure their own supplies could be obtained locally? Possibly. Middlewich’s Pepper Street during the 19th century traded in building, household and light industrial commodities rather than anything delicately culinary, but pre-bypass it was central to town commerce. Of course, other explanations for the local street name might reasonably exist… a notable citizen’s surname perhaps is one, and even a sense of humour is another! Nevertheless the impact of powders on place-names shouldn’t be underestimated!
© Julie Elizabeth Smalley 2018