I am black on the outside, clad in a wrinkled cover,
Yet within I bear a burning marrow.
I season delicacies, the banquets of kings, and the luxuries of the table,
Both the sauces and the tenderized meats of the kitchen.
But you will find in me no quality of any worth,
Unless your bowels have been rattled by my gleaming marrow.
– 7th century riddle
The trail of peppercorns can be found scattered throughout human history, back to antiquity and beyond. This tiny black berry has been a currency, a reason for the Age of Discovery and a cause of national conflict, and today is found universally, in every pantry and on every dining table. From its native home on the Monsoon coast of India, it has come to be grown all over the world, in a dazzling array of varieties. It is prized for its warm, spicy flavour and also for its medicinal properties, and remains the world’s most traded spice.
Peppercorns were known in ancient Greece, where they were probably a luxury enjoyed only by the rich and ruling classes. They became more widely available when the Romans established a trade route between India and the Mediterranean, and soon became an immensely valuable commodity. By the early Middle Ages pepper was so valued it was being used as currency or collateral, so much so that the word entered the Dutch language as an expression of worth (peperduur, meaning something very expensive). There was much conflict in these times between rivals seeking to control the trade, which in Europe came to be monopolized by Italian powers. City states such as Genoa and Venice were literally built upon the proceeds of the pepper trade.
It is said that pepper was used in these times to mask the flavour of spoiled meat, and it is true that pepper is present in many pickling and preserving methods. However it is likely that this is as much to do with pepper’s flavour properties, being strong enough to enhance even the blandest of foods. It was also much prized for health reasons, considered as a remedy for ailments from constipation to gangrene and even toothache. Today it is still widely used in traditional Indian ayurvedic medicine.
By the 14th century the desire for pepper, along with other spices, led the Dutch and the Portuguese to seek new routes to Asia, and as a result led to the discovery of the Americas by Europeans. When Vasco da Gama first sailed round the Cape of Good Hope to India, he was asked his reasons for making the journey; ‘We have come seeking Christians and pepper,’ he replied.
As the spice trade grew, pepper’s value decreased, but it remained the most traded spice, a position it still holds today – it makes up some 20% of all spice imports.
Nowadays the largest producer of peppercorns is Vietnam, and it is also grown in such countries as Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Brazil. However the highest quality pepper is generally agreed to come from the Malabar coast of India, specifically the state of Kerala. In the district of Wynad, on the foothills of the Western Ghat mountains, the berry is ripened on the vine before being hand-picked, a unique process when all other peppers are picked before ripening. Wynad is known as the champagne of the peppercorn world, considered to have more flavour and depth than any other.
Peppercorns are available in various colours, and although the same plant, they have very different qualities.
Black pepper, the most widely used form, is the whole berry including its skin, dried to give the familiar wrinkled appearance. It is pungent and aromatic, with a pleasant and not overpowering heat. It is used as a seasoning and is an important part of a vast range of dishes. No other spice can match this versatility.
White pepper on the other hand is simply the seed of the plant, with the outer layer removed. This gives it a different flavour profile, more subtle as it is lacking in many of the oils and aromas present only in the skin of the berry. It is commonly used in creamy dishes, and especially mashed potatoes, due to its colour blending in with them.
Green pepper, like black, is made from the unripe berries, which are green on the vine. The difference is that green pepper is treated in various ways to retain the green colour, such as freeze-drying or canning. Pickling also performs this function. Fresh peppercorns of course retain the green colour and these are used extensively in Thai cuisine. Their flavour is fresher, with more zing and usually less heat, than black or white.
Pink peppercorns are one of the ‘false flag’ peppers, as they are the fruits of a different family, the Peruvian pepper tree. They do however blend very well when combined with the true peppers, their milder and more floral notes creating a delicious balance. They are seldom used alone, and are commonly added to mixes for the peppermill.
Other ‘false flag’ peppers include Sichuan pepper, Allspice (Jamaican pepper) and Japanese Sancho pepper. They are all fairly similar in appearance to true pepper, and tend to share the properties of heat which pepper has, but the fact they have taken on the name of a different spice only serves to emphasise the cultural, culinary and economic importance that a wrinkled black ball has had upon the world, a berry which came to be the true King of Spices.