Peppercorns – What’s Your Favourite?

March 28, 2022 posted in Behind the Scenes

When we think of peppercorns, it is easy to think of them in terms of black pepper, and well, is black pepper just black pepper? More about white pepper and other pepper varieties later, for now we want to tell you about the different black peppercorns, and the nuances in aroma and taste each type has.

Pepper vines are a particularly attractive sight in their native Southern India, where in the western ghats (steps) of Kerala, they are trellised on palm trees, and sometimes eucalyptus, in what the locals charmingly refer to as ‘spice gardens’ rather than plantations. The pepper vine is not a parasite, so the living tree simply provides an accessible trellis, and its canopy of foliage gives shade for the vine and to the pickers during harvesting.

Pepper vines have minute flowers that are borne on 3–15 cm long catkins that hang among the foliage. Pollination of the hermaphrodite flowers, is assisted by rain, which increases the efficiency of pollen distribution as water flows down the flower cluster. The fruits (peppercorns) form in densely packed spikes. Each spike may produce 50 or more single-seeded fruits which, when fully formed, are deep green. The peppercorns then ripen from their green state to turn yellow and finally become a bright reddish-pink colour when completely ripe.

Black peppercorns are traditionally produced by harvesting, six months after flowering, the full-sized but not yet ripe fruits of Piper nigrum and then drying them in the sun. During this process an enzyme in the pericarp of the peppercorn is activated, it oxidises to turn them black and, among other pungent principals, a volatile oil is created, along with oleoresins that contribute to the total complex, mouth-watering fragrance and robust flavour of black pepper.

Now, things get interesting when we talk about the different grades of black peppercorns. These varying grades are all from the Piper nigrum vine, however the soil and climatic conditions of the terrior (region where they are grown), the harvesting, post-harvest handling and drying, transportation, storage and packaging all contribute to the distinct characteristics of each grade.

Leaving aside very low grades of black pepper that may not have been dried and cleaned effectively, one of the most common grades is referred to as the ASTA grade. This epithet simply stands for American Spice Trader’s Association, and it means the peppercorns comply with set standards of cleanliness, volatile oil content and microbiological stability, among other criteria.

These are the peppercorns you are most likely to be served up in restaurant pepper mills and are the most popular for processing cracked pepper, like you get in sachets on airlines.

Peppercorns Black Asta Whole

Although native to the western ghats of South India, pepper vines have been grown outside of their country of origin since around 100CE. Over 50 years ago an enterprising farmer who was obsessed with pepper started a pepper plantation in North Queensland, Australia.

The result is a an aromatic black pepper that is not quite as hot as other grades, and is one that many people prefer to other more pungent peppercorns. Herbie’s Spices has been purchasing these Australian grown peppercorns for 25 years, and they remain popular with a loyal band of users.

Peppercorns Black Australian

Among the top grades we find what is commonly referred to as Tellicherry black pepper, so named as  Tellicherry, north of Cochin, gives its name to this grade referred to as Tellicherry Garbled Special Extra Bold (TGSEB).

To clarify the grading terminology,“garbled” means cleaned to remove stems, stones and most of the light berries; “special” is an indication that this is the best grade based on flavor profile; and “bold” indicates a large peppercorn, this grade being larger than ASTA.

Tellicherry black pepper has a strong, lingering aroma, as well as having the hottest pepper ‘bite’

So what makes a black peppercorn super grade? Herbie’s Super grade black peppercorns are harvested in Kerala, South India, plunged into hot water to accelerate the natural enzymes in the outer skin (pericarp). They are then laid out on stainless steel benches, where they turn black in about 3 to 5 hours. They are then kiln dried. This process yields a black peppercorn with a highly aromatic volatile oil content. Excellent to use in pepper mills, when the freshly ground aroma and taste of a beautifully fragrant black pepper can be fully appreciated.

Peppercorns Black Super Grade

Kampot pepper comes from Cambodia, and their red peppercorns are unique due to the drying process. These Kampot Red peppercorns are the fully ripe berries of the Piper nigrum vine which are dried carefully, initially in the shade, to prevent the enzyme reaction from turning them completely black. Kampot Red peppercorns have a sweet, almost fruity note, combined with an underlying heat.

Peppercorns Kampot Red Vine Ripened

Now you want to know about white pepper! Is it a different plant? The answer in a resounding NO.

White peppercorns are produced by removing the enzyme containing pericarp (skin) from the peppercorns before they are dried. There are two methods for achieving this result. The outer husk may be rubbed off mechanically, in a process called decortication. Because decorticated white pepper is difficult
to produce and does not yield as good a final product, the traditional method of soaking and macerating is preferred.
This involves picking fresh peppercorns that are in the process of ripening, when their color is turning to yellow and pink. The berries are tightly packed into burlap sacks and immersed in water for between two and three weeks, depending upon the ripeness of the fruit. During this period, aided by bacterial activity, the outer husk softens and loosens from the hard core (a process called retting). After being removed from the water, the peppercorns are macerated and washed until no pericarp remains.
When dried in the sun or in ovens, these peppercorns remain creamy white because they lack the enzyme that turns peppercorns black on drying.  

Peppercorns White Super Grade
Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition
Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition

Believe it or not, there is still so much more to know about pepper. There are different members of the Piper family such as cubeb pepper and long pepper.

There are items called pepper that are not a true pepper at all, like the Schinus terebinthifolius and Sichuan Pepper. Surprisingly chillies are often called pepper!

Pepper has an amazing history, has been one of the world’s most popular spices for thousands of years, and today is the only spice you get free on an airline.

To learn more about the wonderful world of pepper, and many other spices, delve into The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition.

For those of you who wish to become, or are already, pepper enthusiasts – look at our Pepperer’s Guild Spice Kit in a wood box, inspired by the traditions and global impact of pepper.

In 1180, during the reign of Henry II, a Pepperer’s Guild of wholesale merchants was established in London. It became the Grocer’s Company in 1429, and was granted a charter by Henry VI to sell wholesale, or ‘vendre en gros’, from which the term ‘grocer’ derives.

A selection of special and exotic peppercorns for the pepper enthusiast, all in glass jars with compound metal lids, in an attractive pine box with a perspex lid. Detailed information sheet included.

To experience all these peppercorns, and hundreds more spices and spice blends, visit our Spicery at Charmhaven on the NSW Central Coast:

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