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What is Pepper?

Pepper

The pepper plant is a perennial woody vine that is native to India, growing to four metres in height on supporting trees, poles, or trellises. It is a spreading vine, rooting readily where trailing stems touch the ground. The leaves are five to ten centimetres long and three to six centimetres broad. The flowers are small, produced on spikes four to eight centimetres long at the leaf nodes, the spikes lengthening to seven to 15 centimeters as the fruit matures. Pepper is the dried fruit of the flower and is extensively cultivated in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Madagascar and Sri Lanka.

The History of Pepper

It is a pungent spice and a stimulant and has been highly valued for centuries. European demand for pepper played a large part in finding sea routes to the spice growing east in the 15th century. Once the pepper got to the Roman ports it was traded ounce for ounce with precious metals. In the Middle Ages pepper was an accepted currency as it was ideal for trade because it does not deteriorate over time provided it was kept dry and out of sunlight, so, it was possible to pay rent, taxes and dowries with this spice. The term “peppercorn rent” used to really mean something!

Until well after the Middle Ages, virtually all of the black pepper found in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa travelled there from India's Malabar region.  By the 16th century, pepper was also being grown in Java, Sunda, Sumatra, Madagascar, Malaysia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but these areas traded mainly with China, or used the pepper locally.

Once the British influence in India grew the East India Company took
over the pepper trade and the vast tonnage brought in on its ships reduced the price, turning it into an everyday item rather than a luxury. Pepper is neither savoury nor sweet and adds flavour and heat to cooking.

Types of Pepper

Black

Black pepper is produced from the still-green unripe pepper plant. The fruits are cooked briefly in hot water, both to clean them and to prepare them for drying. They are dried in the sun or by machine for several days, during which the pepper around the seed shrinks and darkens into a thin, wrinkled black layer. Once dried, the spice is called black peppercorn.

There are different types of black pepper:

Tellicherry Black pepper from South India  - The champagne of black pepper. Very bold, pungent aroma. Not for the fainthearted. Use where you want a very pronounced, lingering pepper flavour. Best in Indian food.

Sarawak Black from Borneo and Malaysia - Relatively mild with a fruity bouquet. Best suited to delicate flavours. Try grinding over fresh strawberries.

Lampong Black From Sumatra, Indonesia - Mildly pungent and aromatic. This is the one to use when making curry mixtures

White

White pepper consists of the core of a ripe fruit after the husk has been removed. This is usually accomplished by a process known as retting, where fully ripe peppers are soaked in water for about a week, during which the flesh of the pepper softens and decompsoses. Rubbing then removes what remains of the fruit, and the naked seed is dried. White pepper is sometimes used in dishes like light-coloured sauces or mashed potatoes, where ground black pepper would visibly stand out. There is disagreement regarding which is generally spicier. They have differing flavor due to the presence of certain compounds in the outer fruit layer of the berry that are not found in the seed.

One type of white pepper is:

  • Muntok white pepper is from Bangka Island, Indonesia. It is slightly musty with a smooth flavour. Tends not to linger on the palate and is good for soups and starters

Green

Green pepper is milder than black pepper, but, like black, is made from the unripe fruits. Dried green peppercorns are treated in a way that retains the green colour. Fresh, unpreserved green pepper fruits, largely unknown in the West, are used in some Asian cuisines, particularly Thai cuisine. Their flavour has been described as piquant and fresh, with a bright aroma. They decay quickly if not dried or preserved. To preserve, unripe fruits are pickled in brine or vinegar before drying.

Red

Black, white and green pepper all comes from the same plant, red and pink pepper however comes from something else entirely.  It is also called “False Pepper” from the seed of an evergreen tree grown in South America. It has a sweet, piquant flavour, but is mostly used for its appearance.

Facts And Tips On Pepper

  • When using Pepper you should always use it freshly ground.
  • The flavour of pepper comes from the pepperin oils inside the corn. Once the peppercorn is ground the flavours are released.
  • In order to get the most flavour, the corn should be ground just prior to use. There are two ways to release the flavour one is by heat and one is by milling.
  • This is why it is possible to put whole peppercorns in a pepper sauce and still get the flavour without them being crushed. e.g. Fillet steak au poivre.
  • New industrial mills that grind pepper are internally cooled in order to retain as much flavour as possible in the ground pepper.
  • Pepper is treated as a commodity and is bought using a Spot-Buy method on the market.
  • The price depends on the how good the weather is for pepper cultivation and the demand for it.
  • The pepper used in Cole and Mason mills is a high grade pepper, which is determined by the low moisture content of the corn and the flavour.