Peppered with facts – understanding the world of pepper

Pepper is a common word. The term is used to describe berries in differing forms from a tropical climbing vine, a Brazilian tree, members of the capsicum family, outer seed pods of a prickly ash tree, a member of the cardamom family from West Africa, and an Australian native plant – just to name a few.

Peppercorns are a staple of Australian pantries. Peppercorns are a staple of Australian pantries.

So, let’s demystify the world of peppers by starting with what we believe is the original pepper.

Peppercorns (Piper nigrum) that originate from a tropical climbing vine of the Piperaceae family are native to the Western Ghats, in the south Indian state of Kerala. The most common peppercorns are what we know as black pepper. However, the same vine gives us black, white, green and pink peppercorns.

How is this so?

Briefly, black peppercorns are produced by picking green unripe peppercorns (stay with me) which are then placed in the sun for a week. The heat of the sun activates an enzyme in the skin of the peppercorns, turning them black and creating the volatile oil piperine, which gives black pepper its distinctive flavour.

Herbie’s Spices Super Grade Black Peppercorns are extra special, as they are heated to activate the enzyme, and then dried within several hours. As they don’t sit in the sun for a week, they are extra black and have a very strong piperine oil aroma and flavour. This is perfect for the pepper mill.

White pepper is produced by picking ripe, pink peppercorns, soaking them in water for several days, macerating them to remove the enzyme-containing skin, and putting them out to dry. No skin with enzyme equals no piperine. White pepper is hotter than black pepper and lacks the distinct black pepper taste.

Green peppercorns go black if the enzyme is not inhibited. For many years, green peppercorns were put in brine to keep them green. The trouble is, the brine is very salty. Then, the Indians discovered that if green peppercorns were boiled for 20 minutes, the enzyme would be deactivated, and they’d stay green. Presto, dried green peppercorns!

Pink peppercorns cannot be dried successfully, so you will only ever see them in brine.

But what about dried so-called pink peppercorns? Patience – we get to that later, as it’s not a true pepper!

But wait, there’s more

There are other vine peppers of the Piperaceae family such as Indonesian Long Pepper (Piper retrofractrum), Indian Long Pepper (Piper longum) and Cubeb Pepper (Piper cubeba).

Cubeb Pepper is used in dishes around the world.Cubeb Pepper is used in dishes around the world.

Have you noticed how the Americans call chillies and capsicums ‘peppers’? Well, that’s because when Christopher Columbus bumped into the Americas on his way sailing west to the Spice Islands, he called chillies ‘pimento’, which is Spanish for pepper as chillies were hot like pepper (see the link?).

Dried pink peppercorns are actually a bit of a misnomer, as they are the berries from a Brazilian tree (Schinus terebinthifolius) which is only slightly peppery, but more pine-like, similar to juniper. Peppercorn is an easy descriptor, as these little berries are very similar in size to regular pepper.

Pepperberry is grown along the Australian East Coast.Pepperberry is grown along the Australian East Coast.

Additionally, Sichuan Pepper, Melegueta Pepper or Grains of Paradise, Selim Pepper and Australian native pepperberry all get the pepper epithet as they have a ‘peppery bite’.

If you are still unsure about the world of pepper, get a copy of The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition which has all the pepper facts and recipes in great detail.