Today, meals around the world are rarely prepared without pepper in some form. Little would we think that in ancient times, it was so precious that it was used as money to pay taxes, rent, tributes, and dowries. Weighed like gold, it was used as a common medium of exchange. Pepper was the spice that inspired the search for new routes to the East and changed the course of history. Sailors on the first ships to carry peppercorns were required to have their pockets sewn closed to prevent them from squirreling away any of the precious cargo.
Black, white, green and pink peppercorns all are obtained from the small dried berry of the vine Piper Nigrum; they simply are picked at different stages of ripeness. For black pepper, the green berries are picked and piled in heaps to ferment for a few days. They are then sun-dried until they shrivel, turn hard and change to a brownish-black color. For white pepper, the berry is picked when fully ripe and soaked in water to remove the outer layer of shrunken skin. The gray inner peppercorns are then dried until they turn creamy white. White pepper has a milder, more delicate flavor than the hot, piney taste of black pepper.
Black pepper adds flavor to the food of almost every nation in the world. White pepper is mainly used whole in pickling spices and marinades. Ground white pepper is especially popular in European cuisine and is used in light-colored foods such as sauces and soups. Indonesia is the major exporter of white pepper, but Malaysia and Brazil are other important exporters of black pepper.
Because it can be stored for many years without losing its flavor and aroma, it has long been known as the master spice. It is sold in a confusing array of “grinds.” Mesh size is a reference point for each grind, which refers to the size of a screen sifter that the ground product will fall through; the higher the number, the finer the grind. Table grind, or shaker grind, is what you find in a shaker next to the salt on most tables. Coarse grind has a texture similar to Kosher salt. It is preferable to grind your own pepper just before using, as it quickly loses its aroma and flavor after grinding.
Black and long (close relative) peppers have broad antimicrobial, anti-parasitic and insecticidal properties. Peppers have been traditionally used as local anesthetics, but this analgesic (pain-relieving) action has only been recently described. Pepper stimulates the taste buds and helps promote gastric secretions. Black pepper and long pepper are potentially useful in the management of a variety of respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. In folklore, pepper was said to help relieve flatulence and to have diuretic properties. Future research may well retrace the origin and evolution of the properties which attracted attention to pepper in ancient times.
The next time you ask someone to please pass the pepper, take a moment to reflect on the impressive journey this little berry has made to reach your table. And, as with all herbs and spices, choose organic whenever possible.