Black Pepper: where does it come from? the different colors of pepper, its properties and uses
Black Pepper i the most well known and consumed spice in the world (more than 600 thousands tonnes are produced every year, meaning 100g for each and one human being on earth!). Already known and used by the romans, and nowadays the classic table seasoning alongside salt.
But are you sure you know everything about this spice? Do you know where does it come from?Which types and varieties exist? Which are its effects on our health?
If you are interested read on and find every answer
Where does black pepper come from?
Black Pepper comes from the plant piper nigrum, a vine native of the tropical forests of Kerala. Its dried berries (the pepper) have been sold here for thousands of years and transported all over the world : peppercorns were found in the nostrils of Ramses's mummy (circa 1300 BC), and the ancient Romans used pepper in abundance (in Apicius, a Roman cookbook probably written in 1 first century BC pepper is mentioned in most of the recipes).
The Arab merchants kept for years the monopoly of the pepper trade of India, with Venice and Genoa being the intermediaries for the distribution in all Europe. This monopoly (and the price rise in XV century) finally brought adventurers like Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan to look for new routes to reach the spice lands in the East. We know how the story went on and how this spice race changed the geography of the world... keeping our focus on the culinary world it is interesting to say that the chili pepper found by Columbus in America and imported in the "Old World" finally dethroned black pepper in its native India from its leading role, and now is an integral part of Indian cuisine.
To read more about indian spices, their history and their uses, check out this guide
The pepper plant and the genus piper
Pepper, as just said, comes from a vine native of the Malabar coast, in the current state of Kerala, India. This land, just between the Ocean and the mountain range of the Western Ghats, is one of the most biodiversity-rich places in the world (also the cardamom plant have its origins here).
The pepper plant thrives in this tropical, hot and rainy land, et being a vine it needs a support (a live tree or a trellis) to climb on. It can reach 10-15 meters of height, and it is well suited to agroforestry practices, for example using as support trees like coconut, and planting below plants like coffee or cocoa, that need shade and stay low. This kind of agriculture optimize land use and gives the farmer three different yields: coconut, coffee and pepper.
Coming back to pepper, its berries can become green, black, red or white pepper depending on the time of harvest and the type of process after harvest (we will see later on how to obtain the different types of pepper).
We find in the piper genus also other species used as spices:
- Indian Long Pepper (piper longum)
- Java Long Pepper (piper retrofractum)
- Wild pepper of Madagascar, or Voatsiperifery (piper borbonense)
- Cubeb (Piper cubeba)
- Ashanti Pepper (Piper guineense)
All other spices commonly referred to as pepper in fact are not members of the genus piper, and therefore we refer to them as “false pepper”. Read on to see them
These berries, as said, physically resemble peppercorns and share some of their pungency, so they were historically assimilated to pepper and thus called accordingly:
- Pink pepper (or pink berries - schinus molle and schinus terebinthifolia )
- Sichuan pepper (zanthoxylum simulans and z.bungeanum )
- Jamaican pepper or allspice (pimenta dioica )
- Timut pepper (zanthoxylum armatum )
- Monks Pepper (vitex agnus-castus )
- Selim Pepper (xylopia aethiopica)
- Guinea pepper, also called maniguette or grains of paradise (aframomum melegueta )
The different types of pepper
The berries of the piper nigrum plant, which are cluster-shaped, change color as they ripen: from green to yellow-orange and then finally they turn red at full maturity (in the photo we see two pepper spikes, one still green and unripe, the other with most of the fruits already orange-red)
Depending on the maturity level of the berries when they are harvested you can produce green pepper, black pepper, red pepper or white pepper; let's look in detail at the processes followed for each type:
The pepper berries are harvested between two and four weeks before maturity (it can happen between November and January).
To keep their beautiful green color fermentation must be prevented (which leads to blackening) so the berries are put in brine or vinegar. Then they are left in their brine or dried. Alternatively, berries can be quickly dehydrated by freeze-drying - lyophilization - and in this way they keep a taste much closer to that of fresh berries.
Green pepper is not much used in Asia (but in many pepper-producing countries, like Thailand, the fresh green peppercorns are used) but its fresh taste, not too spicy, is quite known in Europe and in the United States thanks to French cuisine that use green pepper to flavor sauces, terrine and slow-cooked stews.
To obtain black pepper the berries are harvested just before maturity (between January and March in most producing areas) when they are still green, but some berry has started to turn yellow-red.
After harvest the fruits are washed or blanched (to clean them up and because the bleaching activates the enzymes that promote the fermentation and the blackening of the berries) or simply left some days to dry in the sun.
During the drying phase phenolic compounds that are present on the skin of the berries oxidize and give the pepper their black color.
Drying, mechanical or natural in the sun, should bring the moisture level to about 12-13% (depending on the size of fruit and the weather it can take up to a week) to assure a perfect conservation.
White pepper is a pepper without its pericarp. The berries are picked at full maturity and then soaked in water (traditionally in the running water of a river) for 7-14 days to detach the skin which is then removed manually.
The pepper berries are then dried to a moisture level of 12-13%. A mechanical process to remove the pericarp is now used, which avoids the risk of possible bacterial contamination during the soaking phase and gives us a product with a far better aroma.
White pepper has a pungent taste (as piperine is found mostly in the core of the fruit), but it's more elegant than black pepper, without many of the floral notes of its darker cousin. It is ideal with sauces, fish and poultry.
Red pepper is a very rare pepper, which is produced only in the region of Kampot (in Cambodia) and in Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam (in fact this island is right in front of Kampot, so both territories have the same climate).
If the berries are left to mature on the plant until they are fully ripe, when they are red and rich of warm, fruity aromas, and then they are harvested, and dried, a splendid pepper that keeps a nice red / brown color is obtained.
This pepper is less pungent than its black pepper brother, and much sweeter, with hints of red fruits and honey.
The production of red pepper is very risky, because while waiting for the berries to ripen the peasants are more exposed to the risk of thunderstorms that can ruin the entire crop, and also to the risk that some of the berries become too ripe and start to rot on the vine. That's why red pepper is so expensive and rare, and a delicacy to be sought after.
Peppers of the world
The piper nigrum is a wild plant grown in India, but its cultivation has also been exported to other countries, such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and further off to Africa and South America.
Now the biggest producer is Vietnam, with Indonesia following, and Brazil in third place that in recent years has surpassed India.
Most of the pepper is mass-produced, without too much attention to its quality, but in many places we can find passionate farmers, and specific terroirs that gives us truly exceptional peppers: among them we must cite the Kampot province (Cambodia), the Penja region (Cameroon) and the coast of Malabar (India), but let's dive into the details with this list of all the best peppers, that really deserve to be looked for :
The other great pepper from Indonesia, Muntok, takes its name from the eponymous city and port from which it is exported, in Bangka Island, just east of Sumatra. Muntok pepper is perhaps the most famous white pepper in the world, thanks to its elegance, its floral and menthol notes and not too strong pungency.
In the extreme south of the island of Sumatra, between the mountains and the Java Sea, pepper trees have been cultivated for centuries, and thanks to the fertile soil and favorable climate the pepper produced here is an astounding pepper, famous for its power, and appreciated also for its woody aroma.
In a province of Sarawak in northern Borneo, some exceptional black and white pepper are produced, thanks to strict quality controls managed by the Malaysian Pepper Board. Sarawak pepper has a powerful taste, a wild and woody scent, with hints of acidity that balance its pungency.
The island of Madagascar has become a major player in the production of spices, and the pepper that is produced here - after being introduced as a culture in the twentieth century - is a good pepper, moderately pungent, with a fruity and woody taste.
The region of Penja, in western Cameroon, is a volcanic zone where pepper was implanted in the 50s. The cultivation of pepper is well adapted to this soil, which gives an exceptional product, not very pungent, with a warm taste, woody and slightly acidic. Penja pepper, black and white, became in 2014 protected by an indication of origin, which recognizes its quality.
Malabar e Tellicherry (India)
Pepper production in India is concentrated in the state of Kerala, in the southwest of the country, and the peppercorns are categorized according to the grain size and quality by Indian Spice Board. To obtain the name Malabar Pepper (MG1 - Malabar Garbled 1) the pepper should be well sorted to eliminate empty and broken berries, and have an average size of 3.75 mm. The Tellicherry (TGSEB - Tellicherry Garbled Special Extra Bold and TGEB - Tellicherry Garbled Extra Bold) is a selection of the larger berries (4.25 mm for the extra bold and 4.75 mm for the special extra bold). They are both powerful peppers, with a lemony aroma and woody, intense and warm taste.
Piper nigrum, native to the Malabar coast of India, has been cultivated in nearby Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for a very long time (especially in the central Matale region). Sri Lanka pepper (black and white) is becoming more and more reputed for its spiciness and high level of piperine. It is also a rich and fragrant pepper, with citrus and floral notes.
Pepper was introduced in Brazil around the 17th century century, and here it has found in the state of Parà an ideal territory for its cultivation. The city of Belém is the capital of the state and also the port from where the pepper was shipped for export and gave its name to all the pepper produced in Brazil. Belém pepper is moderately spicy but with a lemony flavor and very peculiar aniseed notes.
The pepper produced in the Kampot region, in southern Cambodia is considered, with reason, one of the best in the world and is protected by an indication of origin. It has been a traditional crop here for several centuries, and after a big crisis during the Khmer Rouge dictatorship, when the farmers had to flee from their fields, we see today a new golden era of pepper, thanks to passionate farmers involved in a more natural form of farming. Kampot Pepper exist in black and white, but also in red pepper: this one is a pepper harvested when full ripe and dried in the sun; in this way it develops scents of red fruits and honey, and a slight spiciness.
All certified Kampot Pepper is hand sorted and grown without pesticides.
Phu Quoc (Vietnam)
The small island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam, is right in front of Kampot province, and enjoys the same climate that is excellent for pepper cultivation. This is the only other place (except Kampot) where red pepper is found . Phu Quoc pepper is very aromatic, fruity and with marine and iodine notes.
How to use pepper
It is imperative to crush the peppercorns just before use, to keep their taste and fragrance, which do not last very long after grinding. Grinding the grains with a mill (choose one that can adjust the fineness of the grind) or with a mortar will allow you to fully release the aroma of pepper and enjoy it at its best.
A fine grind will be recommended for preparations in which we want a more homogeneous taste; a coarser grind (what is called poivre mignonnette in french cuisine) is used for example in the sauce au poivre and sauce béarnaise sauce, or to make a spicy crust for a steak.
Is pepper bad for you?
Black pepper has many health benefits: it's a warming spice according to Ayurveda and has many applications, often in combination with other spices because it increases the bio availability of other chemicals, such as curcumin, the beneficial substance found in turmeric.
Among the diseases for which pepper is traditionally given to patients as a drug we cite diarrhea, constipation, arthritis, insect bites, and pulmonary and cardiovascular disorders.
In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) pepper is described as a spice capable of heating the body, and it is used to disperse cold and dissolve catarrh. Used with other hot spices like ginger and cinnamon it can be helpful in treating colds and flu.
It is also an appetite stimulant and it helps the production of digestive enzymes in the pancreas  ; it also promotes intestinal transit (a slow transit is often associated with many problems of the gastrointestinal system).
This post was updated on June 24th, 2019