It’s one of our most popular and oldest spices, enjoyed by everyone from the ancient Greeks and Romans to modern-day chefs. Once a luxury item, pepper is now a staple in almost every household. While other herbs and spices are kept hidden in a cupboard, pepper sits in elegant mills on your kitchen counter or at the center of the dining table, ready to add its distinctive pungent, heating flavor to any dish.
Beloved for thousands of years, black pepper has been used for everything from treating disease to preserving mummies. But where does pepper come from and how does it become the familiar peppercorns that we know so well?
Does pepper come from a plant?
Despite their dry and cracked appearance, peppercorns actually start as fruit! They grow on a flowering vine called piper nigrum, in the Piperaceae family. These wide-leafed plants are native to India; however, the vines are grown in nearly every tropical region, including Vietnam, Brazil, China, and Indonesia.
Although it is evergreen, the pepper plant needs specific conditions to flourish, including high temperatures, partial shade and a long rainy season. When properly cared for, the vine loves to climb and can reach heights of up to ten metres. These plants have been known to produce fruit for as long as forty years!
The small green fruits of the piper nigrum grow in clusters on long tendrils which hang off the vines. The fruits are picked at varying degrees of ripeness before being processed.
How do you pick and prepare pepper?
Did you know that black, white, and green peppercorns all start as the same fruit? First, they have to be picked from the vine. This is traditionally done by stepping on them to break the stem from the fruit. Then the berries are dried in the sun or soaked in water, depending on whether you are creating black or white peppercorns.
When preparing peppercorns at home, there are a few ways to ensure you get the maximum flavor, no matter which color peppercorns you choose. Try toasting them in a dry frying pan to enrich their aroma and bring out their inherent smokiness. Once they’ve cooled, simply grind them in your preferred pepper mill as usual.
Where does black pepper come from?
When it comes to spicing up food, black pepper is usually the first thing we reach for. To make black pepper, the bright green fruits are picked, immersed in boiling water for about ten minutes and then sun-dried, causing them to darken and the outer skin of the fruit to contract. After three or four days, they are ready to be packed up and used in kitchens across the world!
As well as its characteristic heating quality, black pepper has subtle flavours of citrus and wood. Easy and versatile, black peppercorns work just as well added whole to stews, soups, stocks and pickles as they do ground or crushed. Just remember that pepper tends to lose its potency over time, so it’s always best to add it towards the end of the cooking process.
Where does white pepper come from?
While black pepper is almost always found in a mill next to the salt, white pepper can be less common in the average kitchen. On the other hand, it’s a common addition to East Asian dishes and perfect for recipes where a peppery flavor is required but not the dark color, such as béchamel sauce or potato salad. Whole white peppercorns can also be a delicious addition to marinades or stone fruit jams.
To make white pepper, first you soften the dark outer coating by submerging the berries in running water. The coating is then removed, and the fruit is spread out in the sun to dry. Since the outer coating contains the essential oils that give black pepper its lemony aroma, white pepper has a sharper taste and a fiercer heat than its counterpart.
Where does cayenne pepper come from?
When you are looking to add some real zing to your dishes, there is no better option than cayenne pepper!
Unlike black and white peppercorns, cayenne pepper does not come from the piper nigrum vine. Instead, this small-fruited pepper belongs to the nightshade family and is closely related to bell peppers and jalapeños. It’s rumoured that Christopher Columbus discovered cayenne peppers in the Caribbean and brought them back to Europe.
Named after French Guiana’s capital, Cayenne, cayenne spice is produced by drying and grinding the ripened fruit and can be used in everything from pizza to tacos. What’s more, capsaicin, the active ingredient in cayenne pepper, is said to be able to boost your metabolism, lower blood pressure and even relieve pain – not bad for a spice!
Can you grow pepper in the US?
In the wild, pepper plants grow in humid tropical areas, with plenty of shade and support from surrounding trees. On the other hand, although it can be tricky, it is possible to grow the vines in the UK and even end up with peppercorns you can use at home.
First things first: don’t try to plant the peppercorns that you have bought to use on your food. They’ve usually been heated for safe storage so that they won’t sprout in your cupboard! Instead, buy pepper seeds from a local garden centre.
Peppercorns love warm weather so if you don’t have a conservatory, plant them in containers so that you can bring the vines indoors during colder months, adding a trellis or stake to support the vine. Use a quality potting soil with a good amount of organic compost and keep the soil moist as the plant grows (remembering not to overwater). Peppercorn plants prefer bright, dappled light, so keep your plant by a window, on a patio or anywhere it can catch some rays.
Finally, be patient! These plants are slow-growing, and it will take a couple of years before flowers and peppercorns appear. In the meantime, their vivid green, shapely leaves will brighten up your home.
Now you know a little more about one of our favorite spices, why not treat yourself to a new Pepper Mill to serve it in?