It is considered the “king of spices”: Pepper has a great importance in almost all cuisines around the world. The spice is the drupaceous fruit of the tropical climbing plant Piper nigrum.
The pepper has a long history: there are findings from the 4th century BC, which prove a use of the spice.
Global pepper trade accounts for about a quarter of the global spice trade: This shows the great importance of pepper all over the world. Pepper is mainly grown in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil.
Pepper is not just pepper
Not all peppers are the same: In the tropics there are about 1,000 different types of pepper. In addition, peppercorns come in different colors: there are black, green, white and pink peppercorns. All these peppercorns come from one and the same plant.
Green pepper is obtained from the unripe drupes of the pepper plant: In taste, green peppercorns are rather mild and fruity. Black peppercorns are actually green peppercorns, but they have been dried in the sun and are therefore black in color.
Black pepper berries are picked when half ripe. They taste aromatic and spicy.
White pepper is obtained from the fully ripe fruits of the pepper bush: The fully ripe fruits are red in color. To make the pulp easier to peel off, the red pepper fruit is placed in water. This reveals the white stone seeds, which are then dried in the sun. Because of the white stone seeds, this pepper is called white pepper.
Mignonette is the French name for black pepper that has been cut into fine pieces – in other words, chopped black pepper. Pepper in chopped form can be found on many French dining tables, as it keeps the aroma longer than ground pepper. It is particularly delicate when the pepper has been shaved into fine leaves. Planed pepper is mainly used to season short-roasted steaks.
In France, ground pepper is called poivre gris (Engl.: gray pepper) because ground pepper has a gray tinge.
Red and gray pepper
Red peppercorns, matured on the bush, are rarely available fresh. Red pepper (often called pink pepper) is the product of the Brazilian pepper tree, which is native to South America. Strictly speaking, the Brazilian pepper tree does not belong to the original pepper plant and too high a dosage of pink pepper has a negative effect on the human body. Therefore, pink peppercorns mainly provide a visual effect, for example, as a decoration on a finished dish. Gray pepper is nothing more than black pepper, which is washed and is very mild in taste. It is rare and is always sold ground.
It’s common to grind pepper – in its ground form, black pepper is one of the basic spices for countless dishes.
Origins of the plant
Originally, the pepper plant is native to the South Indian forests on the equator: some of the best peppercorns in the world come from the southwestern Indian Malabar Coast, often referred to as the Pepper Coast (there is another Pepper Coast in Liberia, West Africa). The climbing plant does not bear fruit until the 8th year: if the growing conditions are right, the pepper plant then produces fruit for up to twenty years.
The trunk and tendrils of the pepper plant have aerial roots with which they cling to other trees. The pungent taste of pepper is due to the substance piperine.
History of pepper
There was a time when pepper was weighed with gold: In the history of modern civilization, pepper has an important role. Peppercorns served as a tax levy, currency and ransom. The Roman Empire, with its high demand for pepper, ensured that the peppercorn became a highly traded spice. But the Romans could not grow pepper themselves in their latitudes: The Arabian Peninsula achieved prosperity and wealth because it could supply the Romans with pepper. It is often said that the search for pepper was one of the reasons why the Europeans set out on the sea route to the East: There is no doubt that colonial history would have taken a different course without pepper.
Use of pepper
But why was pepper in such high demand? Pepper was used for a long time to compensate for the taste of food that lacked freshness: People appreciated the pungency and aroma of pepper. When there were no other preservation methods, pepper was often used to turn a bland tasting dish into an aromatic experience. The famous Roman gourmet Apicius, who is considered the author of the first ever cookbook, recommended pepper as an invigorating seasoning in monotonous dishes. Apicius also appreciated the aromatic power of pepper as a seasoning for desserts.
A beef or veal steak is often served with pepper: for this purpose, there are special steakhouse pepper blends that taste especially good on short-roasted meat.
Asian pepper varieties
Besides the classic pepper, there are more types of pepper: Sichuan pepper refers to the dried berries of a Chinese yellowwood tree. Sichuan pepper does not belong to the real pepper and tastes more hot than peppery. Along with star anise, cloves, fennel and cassia cinnamon, Sichuan pepper is a component of the Chinese five spice powder.
Cubeb pepper (often called Java pepper) comes from the Indonesian island of Java. Small stalks protrude from the fruits, which is why the berries are also called tail berries.
For a long time, the tail berries were a popular product: in the 19th century, however, the black pepper managed to displace the tail pepper almost completely. Only slowly is the cubeb pepper finding its way back onto the spice shelves. Cubeb pepper tastes hot and bitter with a hint of mint. In addition, cubeb pepper is often used for medicinal purposes because of its essential oils.
Indian long pepper is one of the oldest pepper varieties. Long pepper comes from the plant Piper longum, which is related to pepper nigrum. Long pepper is characterized by its intense pungency and a cinnamon-like sweetness that make the spice interesting for both classic and exotic dishes.
Asian pepper varieties such as long pepper or cubeb pepper fell into oblivion in Europe from the 17th century: since then, Asian pepper varieties have only been available in special spice manufactories.
The king of spices
Not only is it one of the most popular spices of all, without pepper world history would probably have taken a different course. To this day, countless chefs rely on the seasoning power of pepper: without the use of pepper, innumerable dishes would lack a peppery note.
Today, Indonesia and India are the world’s largest pepper producers: Over the centuries, pepper production shifted from the Arabian Peninsula to these countries.
The “king of spices” stands at the top of the spice pyramid and has no serious challenger to rival pepper in its seasoning power and universal usability.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: A selection of different pepper varieties, © Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: “The visual food encyclopaedia”, 1996 Les Editions Québec/Amérique & Ortiz, Elisabeth Lambert: “The Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices & Flavourings”, 1992 DK London