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Did you know black pepper is referred to as the King of Spices? In Medieval times, a man's wealth was measured by his stockpile of this pungent spice
Black pepper is one of those spices that is often taken for granted. The tiny black pearls sit in cupboards around the world and make a silent appearance into most dishes. But have you ever stopped to consider the history of black pepper? This spice was once worth its weight in gold. How did black pepper become the most popular spice in the world? It's a fascinating voyage that began more than 4,000 years ago in the mountains of southern India.
Black pepper is the berry of a vine that originated in the Western Ghats, a string of mountains located in South India. Its botanical name is piper nigrum and it is beloved for its pungency and antibacterial properties. Indians revered it for its medicinal properties but black pepper found its home in the Roman Empire thanks to the Arab merchants who dominated the spice trade thousands of years ago. Romans traded gold for the spice and used it to preserve meats. Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder partly blamed black pepper and the spice trade for the economic troubles of the empire.
Peppercorns come in three colors: black, green and white. All three come from the same plant. The berries are harvested at different times and processed according to the desired end result. The most famous variety of black pepper are the Tellichery peppercorns, which come from the Malabar coast of southwestern Indian. Tellicherry peppercorns are considered the most exquisitve due to their rich flavor, which is acquired by leaving them on the vine longer.
Photo by Steenbergs/Flickr
Green peppercorns are the least pungent of all. Their flavor is the freshest, as they are picked before they ripen and are processed in a brine. White peppercorns are essentially peeled black peppercorns. Their outer black skin is removed to reveal their milky white interior. They are piquant and made a great addition to cream-based sauces. Pink peppercorns are not part of the pepper family as they are the berry of a different vine.
The best way to use peppercorns is to buy them whole and grind them as needed. The French add whole peppercorns to marinades and their bouquet garni (spices and herbs wrapped in cheesecloth used to flavor stocks and sauces). Italians use it in countless dishes, most notably the Roman specialty pasta dish cacio e pepe (a cheese and pasta dish with lots of black pepper). Indians use black pepper in garam masala and many other spice mixes. Black pepper is a main spice in the Latin America seasoning adobo. Cooks in the Middle East include black pepper in their baharat spice mix. The Chinese favor the use of white pepper.
How To Buy
Buying black pepper is tricky. There are so many different brands at the supermarket, many of which are inferior to what you find at a specialized spice shop. If you are serious about black pepper, buy it whole from a shop dedicated to spices. When buying Tellicherry black pepper, look for peppercorns that are fragrant and dull - any shine indicates an inferior quality. Green peppercorns should be brightly colored and plump. White peppercorns have a piquant aroma, the highest quality of this variety is called Montok.
Photo by Simo Ubuntu/Flickr
As with many other spices, peppercorns keep best in a dark and cool environment. Contrary to popular belief, pepper mills are not the best place for storing pepper. When you grind the spice, the peppercorns release their essential oils. When affected by heat and time, the oil can get rancid and affect the remaining peppercorns in the mill. It's best to add peppercorns to the mill when you need them.
Another way of storing black pepper is to roast it, allow it to cool and grind. Processed in small quantities and kept in an airtight container inside a cupboard, it will keep well for three months.
The medicinal benefits of black pepper are abundant. In the ancient Indian medical system of Ayurveda, black pepper is used to cure a number of ailments including digestive troubles, insect bites, tooth decay, arthritis and lung disease. In traditional Chinese medicine, black pepper is known as a potent remedy for relieving diarrhea. Recent studies suggest black pepper may aid smokers quit their bad habit, according to Healing Spices, a book written by Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD and Debora Yost.