The history of the spice trade is, above all, the history of pepper, the ‘King of Spices’. It has been moving westward from India for 4,000 years. It has been used in trading as an exchange medium like money and, at times, has been valued so highly that a single peppercorn dropped on the floor would be hunted like a lost pearl.
In classical times ‘tributes’ were paid with the spice, and both Attila the Hun and Alaric I the Visigoth demanded it as a substantial part of Rome’s ransom. Since the Middle Ages, pepper was the core of the European spice trade, with Genoa and Venice dominating the market. The Italian ‘pepperers’ monopoly of overland trade routes was the major determining factor in driving the search for an eastern sea route. For more historical information, read Pepper: King of Spices.
Pepper comes from several species of a vinous plant, the spice being the fruit, called peppercorns. Black pepper is the dried, unripe berry. The corns are wrinkled and spherical, about 5 mm (1/8 in) in diameter. Malabar and Tellicherry pepper are both considered top quality due to size and maturity, with only 10% of the largest corns being graded as Tellicherry.
White pepper starts out the same as the black, but are allowed to ripen more fully on the vine. The outer shell is then removed by soaking the berries in water until the shell falls off, or are held under flowing spring water, yielding a whiter, cleaner pepper.
Green peppercorns are from the same fruit as black and white peppercorns, but are harvested before they mature. Instead of being dried in the sun, they are quickly dehydrated so that they retain their bright green colour and mildly spicy flavour.
Green peppercorns are also packed fresh in brine to preserve them without drying. The Moulin family of France hand-selects and sorts Madagascar-grown green peppercorns, preserves them in saltwater brine, and then packs them in a distinctive green, black and white can. These soft green peppercorns are common in French cooking, and are most famously used in steak au poivre.Dehydrated green peppercorns are easy substituted for peppercorns in brine, or pickled peppercorns, by re-hydrating them in liquid one hour before use. Warm water works well, but wine, broth, or any other liquid can just as easily be used.
Pink pepper, which is not a vinous pepper, comes from the French island of Reunion. Pink peppercorns have a brittle, papery pink skin enclosing a hard, irregular seed, much smaller than the whole fruit.
Bouquet: aromatic, pungent
Flavour: Black pepper is very pungent and fiery. Hotness Scale: 8
White pepper is less pungent. Hotness Scale: 7
Green pepper is milder with a cleaner, fresher flavour. Hotness Scale: 3
Preparation and Storage
Pepper is best purchased whole, as freshly ground pepper is vastly superior to the ready ground powder. Whole peppercorns keep their flavour indefinitely but quickly loses its aroma and heat after it has been ground. Peppercorns are very hard but easily ground in a peppermill. Cracked pepper is the partially broken corns, crushed using a mortar and pestle or with a rolling pin. Dried green peppercorns can be reconstituted for mashing into a paste by soaking in water. Peppercorns should be stored in airtight containers, away from sunlight.
Cooking with Pepper
Pepper is best ground directly on to food. With hot food it is best to add it well towards the end of the cooking process, to preserve its aroma. White pepper is used in white sauces rather than black, which would give the sauce a speckled appearance. Green peppercorns can be mashed with garlic, cinnamon or to make a spiced butter or with cream to make a fresh and attractive sauce for fish. Pink peppercorns are called for in a variety of dishes, from poultry to vegetables and fish.
Plant Description and Cultivation
A tropical, perennial climbing vine with aerial roots. The vine can grow to over 30 feet (10m) but is commercially maintained at about 12 feet (4m). It has wide, glossy, green leaves and bears dense spikes of whte flowers containing 50 blossoms each. The berries are green when unripe and turn red as they mature.
It needs well-drained humus-rich soil and a hot wet tropical climate. Plants can yield for up to forty years. It is grown from cuttings in partial shade and run up trees or poles to support the vines.
P. nigrum is native to southa and east India and Cambodia. It is also cultivated in the East and West Indies and in other tropical Asian countries including the Malabar coast.
Italian: pepe nero
Spanish: pimienta negra
Indian: gol/kala,i, mir(i)ch(i)
Indonesian: merica hitam, meritja
Lao: phik noi
Malay: lada hitam
Thai: prik ki tai
French: poivre blanc
German: Weisser Pfeffer
Italian: pepe bianco
Spanish: pimienta blanca
French: poivre vert
German: Gruner Pfeffer
Italian: pepe verde
Spanish: pimienta verde
French: poivre rose
German: Blassroter Pfeffer
Italian: pepe rosa
Spanish: pimienta rosa
Piper nigrum: Black, White, Green
Schinus terebinthifolius: Pink Pepper