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Pepper: humanity has been smitten with pepper for nearly three thousand years, and our yearning for it has enticed us into the furthest reaches of the world.

Our love of pepper is a universal one. Humanity devours as much pepper as all other spices combined, and with the exception of salt, it is the most consumed spice in the world. It has the power to arouse the appetite with its seductive aroma. We salivate in anticipation of its expected taste. As its pungency heats the mouth and teases our taste buds, our gastric juices are activated and our stomachs wait in anxious anticipation for what is to come. If consumed in sufficient quantities, pepper even has a cooling effect.


Pepper is the emperor of spices, its history a virtual mirror of the spice trade. It's the spice that greased the wheels of the world's economy and kept them spinning madly for centuries. It brought wealth to some of the world's most illustrious cities and transformed backwater continents info modern centers of trade and commerce. Our desire for pepper took us to the furthest reaches of the world. In pepper we discovered a passion that fueled nearly every notable voyage of discovery-and for good reason. Pepper gives the chef and the diner the ability to transform a bland meal into something bright with nuance and vivid character. Our lust for this beguiling spice is resolute. In the nearly three millennia that pepper has held sway over our world's kitchens, appreciation for its many virtues has never waned.


As long ago as 1000 B.C. pepper was referred to in early Sanskrit writings as "pippali." From that word came the Greek "peperi," Latin "piper," and English "pepper." Pepper played a pivotal role in ancient cultures the world over, including ancient Rome where it was used as both a spice and hard currency.

Apicius, a collection of Roman cooking recipes from the [4.sup.+] and 5th centuries, lists pepper in more than 450 of its recipes. The earliest known reference to pepper as a condiment is in the 3rd century B.C. by the Roman Diphilus of Siphnos for his recipe of scallops with pepper. The 1st century Roman Dioscorides was perhaps the first, but certainly not the last, to be fooled by the peppercorn when he wrote of white and black pepper being of two different fruits. This misconception would play out for at least another thousand years. Not everyone in ancient Rome worshiped pepper. The Roman Pliny questioned his pepper-mad Roman contemporaries who, he said, adored a spice with a disagreeable taste that was neither sweet or salty.

Pepper designated as money in ancient Rome was stockpiled in buildings called "horrea piperatoria." An early example of the impending impact pepper would have on the world's economy occurred in Alexandria, Egypt, when the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius levied the first customs tax on pepper. One of the first instances of "spice swindling" occurred in Rome when it became common practice to shrivel juniper berries, place them in barrels with peppercorns, and sell them as pepper once they adopted the more expensive spice's characteristic flavors and aroma. Pepper even served as Rome's savior when, in 408 B.C., Alaric, King of the Visigoths, demanded 2500 kilograms of pepper as part of a payment to spare the city from sacking.

This was certainly not the last time pepper was used as currency. At the end of the 10th century the English Statutes of Ethelred required "Easterlings" (Eastern Europeans) to pay a tribute to King Ethelred that included ten pounds of pepper. Henry II made the English love of pepper official when he established the Guild of Pepperers in 1150 A.D. One of the oldest guilds in London, in 1328 it was reregistered as "Grossarii," from which the word "grocery" evolved.

Pepper was also one of the earliest articles of commerce between the West and the Orient. As soon as the exotic spices of the East teased the palettes of the Crusaders, their initial mission to unite the holy cities of Palestine was transformed into a lust for spices. It was this desire that created the spice trade between Europe and Asia. Spices were lucrative, easy to transport and highly demanded by the insatiable upper classes of Europe. The wealthy used pepper as a means to flaunt their affluence, and demanded spices, particularly pepper, in their (presumably over-spiced) recipes. There is some evidence to suggest that the excessive use of spices was also a method to disguise the flavor of rotten food, but this theory is still in dispute. It was the pepper and the spice trades as a whole that led to an ascent of wealth and culture in northern India; transformed Europe from an outcrop of Asia to a global super power; and brought was fortune to port cities such as Venice and Genoa.

During the Middle Ages in Europe pepper was also frequently used as currency. It was often stored under lock and key as a measure of a man's fortune. A pepper bribe from a shopkeeper to a tax collector was customary, as was the payment of one kilogram of pepper between a tenant and his landowner. This sum was the equivalent of three week's income for the average medieval farm worker, and was enough to buy a slave's freedom in France. It was routine between tenant and landowner to symbolically hand over a single peppercorn to confirm new tenancy, which is the origin of the term "peppercorn rent."

When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the ancient spice trade routes were closed to the West, and the grandeur of the once thriving port towns of Genoa and Venice diminished. The Ottoman dominion of the East opened up new opportunities for the coastal cities of Portugal, Spain, France, and the Netherlands. Fresh players were invited to play the pepper game and this new era inspired great voyages of discovery.:

Explorers set sail in search of spices, specifically pepper. Columbus's crew was so preoccupied with pepper when they landed on the coast of The Spice Islands that when they showed the natives peppercorns and were shown allspice as its supposed equivalent, allspice was incorrectly named "Jamaican Pepper," or "pimento," even though allspice is actually a member of the myrtle family. Columbus also contributed to the confusion over whether or not the chili is in fact a pepper when he, in his pursuit for the elusive spice, incorrectly called the vegetable a chili pepper.

England joined the quest for pepper fairly late in the game. By the time the control over the pepper routes shifted from the Portuguese and the Dutch to the British, the spice's value had dropped dramatically, with pepper costing only six American cents per kilogram on the world market. The reasons were many for the temporary decline of peppers's value and included France's shift from its more robust cuisine to a lighter fare that called for milder herbs and spices as opposed to pepper's bold flavor. But with the 18th century collapse of the Dutch East India Company, resourceful English traders turned the ports of Boston and Salem into important centers of the pepper trade, a status they maintained well into the 20th century. Pepper's decline in value meant, however, that it finally found its way into the cooking of the peasantry, transforming pepper from a darling of the wealthy to a spice beloved by the masses.


Just what is this spice that has played such an important role in so many facets of our collective culinary heritage, and contributed so fundamentally to shaping the world's economies? There are over 1,000 species in the Piperaceae family, the most significant being those that bear the Indian and Javanese long pepper, the cubeb pepper, and of course the almighty peppercorn. The latter is a fruit born of the Piper Nigrum species, a climbing bush that requires abundant rain, a warm climate and a trellis to support its growth. Traditional support systems for the Piper Nigrum in India are eucalyptus and palm trees, but it is also common today to support the bushes on plant stakes. Cultivated trees reach heights of up to three meters, with their wild counterparts growing to twice that size. While a tree requires a trellis, pepper is not parasitic, and returns the favor to its host by providing it, and those who harvest its fruit, with welcome shade from its generous, leafy canopy.

Piper Nigrum begins to produce fruit at between three or four years of age, and lives to 25-30 years old. It's at its peak of production at about age eight. The flowers hang in long spikes, and in India they bloom during July and are ready for early harvest in January. The plants are hermaphroditic and are assisted by rain in the pollination process. The fruit of the tree, the peppercorn, grows in tightly packed spikes, with 50 or more berries per spike. The pea-sized fruit that is the peppercorn is green, black, or white, depending upon its stage of ripeness when harvested.

The green peppercorn is the fruit at the earliest stage of ripeness and did not become popular in the United States until the 1950s. Peppercorns are traditionally picked by hand, and contain an enzyme that must be stopped from oxidizing in order to prevent the pepper from turning black. Oxidation is inhibited by brining the peppercorns in salt, or by plunging the peppercorns in boiling water for fifteen minutes to kill the enzyme. This last process results in dried green peppercorns. Freeze-drying is the modern technology used to produce dried green peppercorns, which have a subtler flavor than their black and white counterparts.

When the peppercorn berry is about six months old, the age at which it is half-ripe and slightly red, it is harvested for black pepper. In pre-industrial days, the peppercorns were lightly fermented, dried in the sun, and sometimes smoked to prevent mildew. It is the drying process that blackens the skin, or pericarp, of the fruit. The pericarp blackens and wrinkles around the fruit's seed, which retains its white color throughout the drying process. An enzyme is expelled as the skin blackens; it is this oxidation that turns the pericarp black. The volatile oil piperdine is created during this process, along with oleoresins, both of which contribute to the pungent, tantalizing aroma and commanding flavor of black pepper. Piperdine is an alkaloid common to all pepper varieties, and is pepper's main flavoring element. The oil is also used to produce "heliotropin," a popular ingredient in the perfume industry.

A more contemporary method for drying black peppercorns is to plunge them into boiling water, which accelerates the enzymes reaction to heat and turns the berries black in a few hours rather than several days. However, even peppercorns that are oxidized in boiling water must finish drying in a kiln or in the sun to reach the desired 12% moisture level. Growers are sometimes tempted to only dry their peppercorns to a 14% moisture level because they are paid by weight in the world's pepper market. This makes black peppercorns susceptible to mold, which traders sometimes attempt to hide by "reconditioning" the moldy peppercorns by dousing them in oil and filtering them until the mold has been removed and the peppercorns are black and shiny. For this reason, it is always better to purchase peppercorns that have a dull surface, rather than a shiny patina. Light "berries" are black peppercorns that are missing their internal white seed. These less flavorful berries are cheaper to market and it is, therefore, wise to look for ground pepper that has a gray appearance, not a jet black color.

White pepper is actually the seed of the peppercorn. It is the final stage of a peppercorn and results when the pericarp of the peppercorn is removed. Fruit intended for white peppercorns is harvested when its bright red and loose; this makes it easier to remove the pericarp from the seed. Traditionally, the peppercorn berries are soaked and macerated in gunny sacks, called "hessians," and immersed in clean, flowing water, like a stream, for one to two weeks. Bacterial activity assists in softening the husk and loosening it from its dense core in a procedure called "retting." The final remnants of the pericarp are dislodged in tubs with workers' stomping feet in much the same way a traditional grape stomping expels juice from the grape. "Decortication" is the modern mechanical method for removing the husk, but the results are not as desirable as traditional methods. The French and the Chinese, who do not like black specks in their food, traditionally use white peppercorns. White peppercorns are ideal when a pepper bite is desired without the strong pepper aroma of black peppercorns. While it is less aromatic, the bite of a white peppercorn is more intense than that of the black or the green because it is the heart of the fruit.

While it is possible to reap a pink peppercorn, referred to as a "true pink peppercorn," from the piper nigur tree, the most common variety of pink peppercorn, the rose pepper, does not belong to the pepper family at all: It's a berry, a Schinus molle, derived from the Peruvian mastic tree. Imposters aside, the true pink peppercorn is produced by putting ripe, red fruit into a brine in the same manner as the green pepper is, but the berry is so fragile at this stage that boiling it, or even freeze-drying it, will destroy its delicate pericarp. True pink peppercorns have a spicy flavor and are frequently used as a decorative element in desserts, condiments and fish dishes.

Whether a peppercorn is green, black, white or pink, there is one factor that remains constant for all four varieties: their pungency, derived from three elements; resin, piperdine and volatile oil. It's important to remember that a whole pepper retains its sting and aroma much longer than ground pepper.


Pepper is now grown in many countries, including Australia, Brazil and Sri Lanka, which are positioned in the same tropical latitude around the world. There are three nations that dominate the world's pepper market: India, Malaysia and Indonesia. While pepper originates from India's western Malamar Coast, known as the "Pepper Coast," it did not take long for it to find its way to the rest of the world. Cultivated for the past 3,000 years, it was introduced between 600-100 B.C. to Malaysia by Hindu colonists, and exported to Indonesia approximately 2,000 years ago.

India specializes in black pepper, predominantly grown along the Malamar Coast. Two main types of Indian pepper are named after the regions from where they are cultivated. One region is Tellicherry, north of Cochin. Tellicherry is the source of T.G.S.E.B. pepper: Tellicherry, Garbled, Special, and Extra Bold. There is also Malabar, once called Alleppey Pepper, which comes from a region south of Cochin. It is considered by many pepper connoisseurs to be the best pepper in the world because of its high levels of oleoresin and volatile oils, which create a heady pungency. It is designated as M.G.1: Malabar, Garbled, No.1. The Cochin Pepper Exchange in Mattancherry, India, works just as stock markets do, with speculators, hedgers and futures. There is an open outcry system, with clients from all over the world talking on phones to those trading on the floor.

Malaysia produces both black and white pepper, the majority of which is grown almost exclusively in Sarawak, and exported from the port of Kuching. Both regions lend themselves as names to Malaysian pepper. Sarawak pepper has a milder aroma and is less pungent than pepper from India or Indonesia, and large amounts of it are ground and sold in supermarket blends.

With 60,000 tons grown annually, Indonesia was once the leading pepper producer. India, which produced only one third as much, came in second. However, during WWI the majority of Indonesia's pepper plantations were destroyed, and during the same period, India increased its pepper production to 30,000 tons. Since then, Indonesia has regained a large share of its former market, and pepper production has spread to other Southeast Asian countries as well. Indonesia predominantly exports white pepper, and the nation's peppercorns are typically smaller than those grown in India and Malaysia. They have a unique, lemony flavor and are popular in Asia, Australia and New Zealand. The acronym A.S.T.A. is sometimes used to describe pepper from Indonesia and Malaysia, and means the pepper meets the minimum standards of the American Spice Trade Association.

Wherever it hails from, one thing unites all pepper varieties: Humanity is in love with pepper. We have been smitten with this spice for nearly three thousand years, and our yearning for it has enticed us into the furthest reaches of the world. Perhaps no other spice has graced the tables of more cooks the world over than pepper. We are perpetually inventing new recipes that are enlivened by the tease of pepper, and beloved traditional recipes would perhaps not hold as much sway over our hearts were it not for pepper. Pepper has the ability to transform the mundane into something sublime. It gives a voice to the familiar and encourages it to sing.

"Black Pepper heats and comforts the brain."

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Title Annotation:Back to Basics
Author:Herball, John Gerard
Publication:Art Culinaire
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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