Botanical name Piper nigrum ▪ Family name Piperaceae
Pepper is a perennial vine indigenous to the Malabar Coast of India, and this area is still reputed to produce the highest quality pepper. Pepper grows best in humid, rainy, tropical areas. The plants start fruiting after about 3 years and continue to do so every third year for up to 40 years. The history of the spice trade is essentially about the quest for pepper. Trade routes were fiercely protected and empires were built and destroyed because of it. In volume and value pepper remains the most important spice.
Native range Southern India
Major producers India, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia
Harvesting To produce black pepper, immature green berries are picked, briefly fermented, and then dried. During drying, the peppercorns shrivel, become wrinkled, and turn dark brown to black. For white peppercorns, the berries are picked when yellowish-red and almost ripe, and then soaked to soften and loosen the outer skin. Once this is removed, they are rinsed and sun dried.
Taste and aroma Black pepper has a fine, fruity fragrance with warm, woody, and lemony notes. The taste is hot and biting with a clean, penetrating aftertaste. White pepper is less aromatic and can smell musty. The flavour of white pepper is cleaner, less rich, and not as complex as black pepper.
Culinary uses Pepper is one of the most versatile spices. Although mostly used in savoury cooking and as a table condiment, it can also be used with fruits and in some sweet breads and cakes. Pepper brings out the flavour of other spices and retains its own flavour well during cooking.
Other uses Pepper has long been recognised as an ingredient for stimulating the appetite as well as aiding in the relief of nausea. In India it has been used as a medicine for thousands of years to treat anything from paralysis to toothache.
Historical uses In ancient Greece and Rome, taxes were paid in pepper. In the Middle Ages, pepper was used as money and at times was as valuable as gold.
Storage Black and white pepper rapidly lose their flavour and aroma when ground, so it is best to buy whole peppercorns and grind or crush them as required. Whole peppercorns will keep for a year or more when stored in an airtight container.