Updated: Nov 13, 2021
One of the most common spices in every house in the UK is Pepper–you probably grew up with this spice along with salt on your meal table at home.
But what exactly is Pepper and where does it come from?
Peppercorns are actually the fruits of a flowering vine in the Piperaceae family. The green, wide-leafed vines grow long tendrils where cylindrical clusters of the berries ripen. The fruits are small containing a thin skin, very little actual fruit, and a single large seed. The fruits are picked at varying degrees of ripeness depending on the strength and type of pepper desired and then processed accordingly.
The vine is native to India but is grown in nearly every tropical region. Vietnam currently grows and exports the most black pepper, totaling around 35% of the world’s supply, followed by India, Brazil, China and Sri Lanka. Used in practically every single style of cuisine imaginable pepper is the most traded spice worldwide and makes up 20% of the world’s total spice trade. In fact, the black pepper trade is worth billions of dollars annually!
It’s not too much of a surprise considering this piquant little spice has been beloved for thousands of years. For a long time, is was primarily utilised as a medicine. The spice was even used in preserving mummies.
Ancient Romans and Greeks loved pepper. In fact, the ancient Roman cookbook, Apicius, written in 4 AD uses black pepper in 80% of its recipes.
The desire for black pepper was also a driving force for many explorers such as Columbus and Vasco de Gama who set out hoping to find a faster route to India in order to more quickly acquire it for spice-hungry European markets. It is reputed to have even been used as a currency in some parts, which is the root of the term 'Peppercorn Rent'!
Peppercorns get their telltale bite from a chemical called Piperine that is found in the fruit and seed of the peppercorn. Piperine can actually break down when exposed to heat, air, and light and so peppercorns and ground pepper should be stored properly or used quickly.
Black, white, and green peppercorns are all the same fruit but treated differently.
Carla's Five Pepper Mix contains:-
Black peppercorns are dried, unripe fruits that have been cooked. This as an ‘everyday’ pepper, having a nice, rounded peppery flavour and heat.
White peppercorns are the seeds of the dried, ripe fruits. The flesh is removed to achieve the white colour. The process also involves soaking the berries in water for a few days.
These white peppercorns have a stronger aroma than other peppercorns. Chefs use white peppercorns primarily in white sauces or light coloured dishes, and again, they are best ground directly onto food.
Green peppercorns are the same berry as black – but they are picked earlier, before the berries ripen. This means they have a lighter flavour than black pepper, although the 'hotness' is the same.
Although much used in Thai and Vietnamese dishes, in Western cooking they are part of the famous ‘sauce au poivre vert’, which is served to accompany both steak and duck – try this luxurious sauce on a veal escalope or chop for a real treat! Green peppercorns are best used in dishes with a short cooking time, as this means they are sure to retain their fresh character.
Pink peppercorns are a bit of a misnomer as they’re technically not peppercorns at all! The Pink Peppercorn is a dried berry of the shrub Schinus molle, commonly known as the Peruvian peppertree. Although not related to black pepper (Piper nigrum) the pink/red berries are sold as pink peppercorns. Pink peppercorns came to be called such because they resemble peppercorns, and because they, too, have a peppery flavour. As they are members of the cashew family, they may cause allergic reactions including anaphylaxis for persons with a tree nut allergy.
Whole Pimento (Allspice)
Whole Pimentos also known as Jamaica pepper, Myrtle pepper, Pimenta, and most commonly as Allspice, is the dried unripe berry of Pimenta dioica, a tree native to the Greater Antilles, southern Mexico, and Central America, but now cultivated in many warm parts of the world. The name 'allspice' was coined as early as 1621 by the English, who valued it as a spice that combined the flavours of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.