So you’re making eggs for breakfast. What do you reach for? Black pepper.
You’re whipping up soup for dinner, what do you reach for? Black pepper. You’re topping off each dish for Thanksgiving with what? Black pepper!
Nearly everything we eat tastes better with some freshly ground pepper. But what are those round, black kernels we grind up every day? Where does pepper come from?
These fragrant, spicy, and wrinkly kernels come from a plant called Piper nigrum and taste anything like what they really are—fruit!
Where Do Peppercorns Come From?
Surprisingly, peppercorns are the fruit of Piper nigrum or the “black pepper plant”. Clusters of peppercorns grow in green cylinders on the vine and contain little fruit, but thin skins and a single seed inside.
So where does black pepper come from? The plant needs a tropical climate to thrive and often attaches itself to nearby trees. On the vine, the berries look pretty similar to grapes. Even when peppercorns are harvested to become black pepper, they’re green like tiny peas.
Piper nigrum originates in India, but now Vietnam grows and exports one-third of the world’s supply. The other two-thirds are produced in combination with India, Brazil, and Indonesia.
The Origin of Black Pepper
The historical significance of black pepper is more profound than you might think. Black peppercorns were so coveted that trade routes were built around securing the aromatic spice. As early as 1000 BC, India developed spice routes with the Middle East so that more of the world could get their hands on “black gold”. In many ways, the history of pepper is intertwined with the history we know of the modern world.
Ancient societies held pepper in such high regard that it was used for currency in Rome and it’s rumored that one pound of peppercorns could buy a French serf their freedom. Even though it was so highly valued, ancient cultures did cook with pepper as we do today. It often topped dishes to show extraordinary wealth in a household.
Some familiar names even played a role in the boom of black pepper. In the 15th century when Christopher Columbus set sail, he was on the hunt for a more efficient spice route to the East Indies for these exotic spices. Peppercorns even made their way into the mummification process and Ramses II was discovered with peppercorns in his nose. The medicinal uses for black pepper were also a key part of its rise to fame.
As trade routes increased and demand soared for black pepper, it lost its value and became the pepper we know today.
From the Vine to Pepper Shaker: How is Black Pepper Made?
Piper nigrum takes four years to mature but can be harvested for seven years. Once a couple of the green berries begin to turn red on the vine, the vines are picked and separated from the peppercorns.
So by now, you might be wondering, how is pepper made? To become the black peppercorns we know in our grinders, the fruit is dried either by the sun or a machine. It ferments and certain enzymes cause the skin to become black and wrinkle. These are either ground and packaged or put in a grinder for on-the-spot use by the purchaser.
Generally, ground pepper only keeps 3-4 months while whole peppercorns last over a year. They also differ in taste. Since whole peppercorns are ground as needed, oils are released by the peppercorn as it breaks down. This is why there’s a stronger flavor associated with freshly ground pepper! In comparison, pre-ground pepper has a less robust and pungent taste.
Black Pepper vs White Pepper and Beyond: Different Types of Peppercorn
You might have heard about other types of pepper in your culinary explorations and it’s no farce. In addition to black and white, there are also green, red, and pink peppercorns!
Especially popular in Thai cuisine, white peppercorns are derived from the same Piper nigrum pepper plant and cultivated similarly, but the berry becomes fully ripened, making it red. Once this happens, the berry is soaked and the outer layer of flesh is removed, yielding just the white peppercorn seed. White pepper has more bite than black pepper, and it’s noticeably more herbal.
Since most peppercorns are derived from green peppercorns, these are also from the same species. These are under ripened berries straight from the vine that are often preserved in brine instead of dried as black peppercorns are. Green peppercorns are fresh and tart, unlike their spicy cousins.
If the Piper nigrum berries are left on the vine long enough, they turn a brilliant, sharp red. Because red peppercorns are usually stripped away to become white peppercorns or dried to become black peppercorns, it’s rare to find red peppercorns on their own. Typically, they can be found added to black peppercorn grinders for a bit of flair or sold separately at health food stores. They’re generally milder in flavor than their counterparts.
These tricky cousins aren’t from Piper nigrum, but instead come from a plant called the Peruvian Peppertree. They look similar to peppercorns, but they’re actually berries that need to be crushed instead of ground.
The pink peppercorn’s brush with fame began in the 80s as a way to add color to lackluster dishes. They taste slightly peppery, but at a small cost: they might be toxic. The jury is still out, but after the Food and Drug Administration clashed with France over importing the potentially toxic berries, they lost their appeal.
The toxicity many associate with pink peppercorn might be a small allergy and there have been issues with farmers who handle them often having adverse effects.
So where does pepper come from? Black pepper might seem like an indiscreet, fiery add to any number of your favorite dishes and this beloved pungent flavor is something we seek now on nearly everything we eat. It’s no secret that spices can have immune-boosting benefits. In addition to its wide cultural significance spanning time and space, pepper has numerous health benefits. As an antioxidant, black pepper can help combat the damage done by free radicals, which progress aging.
Our favorite finishing touch to pastas, meats, and salads, might also slow cancer cell growth, combat degenerative brain diseases, and lower cholesterol. It’s safe to say that freshly ground black pepper is a wonderfully nutritious addition to any diet.
Next time you reach for the pepper grinder, don’t forget how much it has impacted the course of history and wound up in your pantry.
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