(adapted from The Herbalist's BibleThe Herbalist's Bible, p63)

We thought it would be interesting to see what John Parkinson’s herbal, Theatrum Botanicum, published in 1640, made of capsicums or chillies. These were a fairly new item of trade in his time, the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. He knew the plants as ginny peppers (because of coming from Virginia) and recorded their damaging physical effects but also appreciated their health benefits.

He noted that small quantities of chillies were medicinal and pleasurable, and recommended taking them baked in bread form (recipe given below). He explained the benefits to the digestion and for removal of phlegm, in treating coughs and sore throats, to improve period pain, and when reduced to an ash to whiten the teeth.

Parkinson said, and we would agree, that for people with a hot constitution chillies are too heating to bear, but for those with a cold constitution, poor circulation and plentiful phlegm they are marvellously beneficial.

… yet marke and observe the goodnesse of our good God, that hath notwithstanding all these evill and noysome [offensive] qualities [of ginny peppers], given unto man the knowledge to tame and maister them, and cause them to be serviceable and profitable for their health.
– Parkinson, Theatrum Botanicum (1640)

… there is also plenty of aji [chilli], which is their pepper, which is more valuable than [black] pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome. Fifty caravels might be loaded annually with it.
– Christopher Columbus (ship’s log, 14 January 1492), off Hispaniola

Taming fire: a simple chilli bread

This recipe is adapted by Parkinson from the writings of Capuchin friar and botanist Gregorio de Reggio (d. 1614). We tried it, and it worked for us to moderate the hottest chillies, and the baking process, to our surprise, produced a loaf that had a strong chilli effect without the usual burning mouth or coughing fit.

We took 30g (1 oz) of hot chilli powder and mixed it with 450g (about 1 lb) of wheat flour, 1 teaspoon of yeast and 1.5 cups warm water to produce a dough. We kneaded this, then placed it an oiled tin to rise. It was then baked for 45 minutes at 175C (350F).

Parkinson sliced his bread and baked it again until crisp (melba toast). We found this very tasty, and kept some in a jar to stay crisp. We powdered some too to use as spicy breadcrumbs.