(Piper nigrum – Family Piperaceae)
The Pepper family consists of ten genera and over 1,000 species, native mainly to the tropics. One genus alone (Piper) contains about 650 species of which the most important is the peppercorn. Although true pepper belongs to the genus Piper, the name is commonly applied to very different fruits from the Nightshade family (Solanaceae). Confusion as to the name began when Columbus named the capsicum “peppers” as such because, at the time, black pepper was extremely expensive and he thought this was a viable alternative.The Sanskrit word for pepper is ‘pippali’ and refers to the long pepper, a close relative of the peppercorn. Also related to the betel nut, peppercorns comes from a climbing plant native to the East Indies and Malaysia.
The pepper plant is native to the forests of Tranvancore and Malabar, but is now extensively cultivated in tropical regions around the world. The pepper tree is a climber and on plantations, it is usually grown on such other trees as the betel, palm, or mango because its cordlike stems need the support provided by sturdier trees. The tree begins to bear fruit in its third year and continues for six or seven more. The trailing vines produce long strings of twenty or more fragrant fruits and grow to lengths of up to twenty feet. When ripe, the fruit resembles red currants; but, after drying with the outer pulp still intact, they become the black peppercorns of the commercial world. To produce black pepper, the berries are gathered when they are turning red, but before they are completely ripe and then left in heaps for a few days to ferment. Once this has been accomplished, the berries are spread out on mats in the sun to dry where they turn black and form a reticulated covering to the seed. Today, pepper is not only grown in Indonesia and India, but also in Madagascar and Brazil. The finest quality of black peppercorns are said to come from the Malabar region of India. Although other spices played an important part in the discovery of the New World, it was the peppercorn that facilitated transport to Europe by establishing a direct maritime route from the East – which was the original plan for these adventures.
Black pepper was a major item in the spice trade for millenia and, for much of its history, was a luxury item used only by the aristocracy. So great was their value that they were used as currency during the Middle Ages and medieval period in certain areas. By then, pepper had assumed great importance in Europe, where it was used by the rich as a seasoning and as a preservative. The earliest reference to the pepper trade in England was from before the year 1000 BCE. One of the first mentions of the Guild of Pepperers, one of the oldest guilds in the City of London, is from 1180, when the guild was fined for not obtaining a royal licence. By 1328, the Pepperers were registered as ‘Grossarii’, from which the term ‘grocer’ is derived. The Phoenicians were undoubtedly the first traders to introduce the use of pepper throughout southern Europe and North Africa. It was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but its costliness prevented it from being widely used. During the thousand-year existence of the Byzantines, peppercorns were widely used in the Mediterranean. From warehouses in Constantinople, peppercorns were shipped to western Europe. After the decline of that empire, the center of the spice trade shifted to Venice at the head of the Adriatic. Pepper was not the only spice of importance to the spice trade of the time, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger were all imported from the East and sent throughout Europe. Venetian domination of the spice trade ended with the rise of Portugal as a major European power. Later, the Dutch usurped dominance, and, from their colonies in the East Indies, established total monopoly on southeast Asian spices, through various methods of control and manipulation (see more under Nutmeg), which included vast stockpiling and widespread destruction of certain spice-bearing trees. Dutch merchants established a stranglehold on the spice market, keeping prices extremely high while reaping outrageous profits. By the late 1700s, the French had broken the Dutch monopoly by means of competative prices; and from then on, spices became available to all classes of Europeans.
Pepper is available whole, cracked, and coarsely, medium, or finely ground. It has become, along with salt, the most common everyday spice used around the world. In order to buy a salt shaker, its pepper companion must also accompany the purchase. Indian black pepper is usually of a high quality, with the main production still centered along the Malabar coast. The Alleppey variety comes from the south, and the Tellicherry, from the north. The latter is more expensive and is the type used whole in Italian salami. Another Indian pepper is Mangalore, which is very dark with a good flavour. The pungency of pepper is caused by the active principles of its volatile oils, piperine, and resin. The spice increases the flow of saliva and gastric juices so, technically, improves digestion; and, if consumed in sufficient quantities, it will have a cooling effect. However, the ingestion of too much can lead to stomach cancer.
White pepper is produced when the berries are left to ripen longer than the black before they are harvested. They are soaked until the pericarp and pulp have become soft and loose allowing the whitish seed to be easily removed. White pepper contains more piperine than the black but is less aromatic and has a weaker flavour. It is used only in dishes where dark specks will spoil the looks of the food. The milder white pepper is quite popular in many areas of northern Europe while the black is the most heavily used spice in the Western world. Pliny noted that white pepper cost almost twice that of the black and was a precious and expensive substance for the Romans and Alaric the Goth demanded 3000 pounds of the substance as part of a ransom for Rome.
Decorticated black pepper is also another sort of pepper which has the skin of the peppercorn removed by machine, technically making it a white pepper; but the flavour is different, hovering between the two.
Green peppercorns are just the unripened berries of the same seed and preserved by arificial drying or by bottling in vinegar, brine, or water. When bottled, they begin to turn red and are called ‘poivre rose’; but they are not the same red peppercorns of commerce, which come from an entirely different plant.