A Short History of Pepper

A Short History of Pepper

| Comments

Along with cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, pepper was one of the most sought after spices of the Age of Discovery.  The use of dried pepper goes back 500 years in the East where it was not only a commodity but a form of currency.  In fact, black pepper is the world’s most widely traded spice. In ancient times, the Chinese used it to treat malaria, cholera, diarrhea and stomach complaints.  In Greece, it was used for fever as well as stomach disorders.  Other little known physical treatments include arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, circulation disorders, cold, flu, emphysema, headaches, muscle aches, migraines, sinus congestion and varicose veins.  The use of pepper can clear confusion, calm the nervous system, lessen anxiety and depression, strengthen focus and relieve stress.  All this and it makes your food taste good!

Black Pepper or “piper nigrum” is cultivated for its fruit which is usually dried as a spice for seasoning.  Each fruit grows in a cluster on a stem and is a single seed.   Pepper is a product of its environment:  namely, soil, sunshine, humidity, rainfall. It grows well in tropical climates where it has a moist rich soil and is partially shaded by larger trees.  The pepper we sell is from Madagascar, an island off the eastern coast of Africa.  It is indigenous to the region and grows in the Antananarivo region of the Ankaratra Mountains. The region is shrouded in clouds during the early morning.  The clouds are burned off by intense sunshine throughout the day and a 20 minute tropical rainfall is the normal in the late afternoon.  The berries grow in clusters on a flowering vine which can either trail on the ground or climb trees.  The clusters are cut before the berries turn ripe or red and are brought into a warehouse where women sit at table in front of a screen and, believe it or not, each berry is hand-picked off the cluster.  They are then shaken free of dirt, hauled outside and sun-dried for several days during which the skin around the seed dries and shrinks and darkens into a thin wrinkled black layer. The peppercorns can last for years in this state, only releasing their flavor and aroma when cracked by hand or ground in a pepper mill.

White pepper consists of the inside seed of the fruit.  The darker colored skin is removed by a process known as retting.  Fully ripe peppercorns are soaked for about a week until the flesh softens and decomposes.  Rubbing them removes the residue and the naked white seed is dried.  Black pepper is considered spicier than white pepper because the active ingredient “peperine” resides in the skin and this is what contributes the spice.

Green Pepper, like the black is made from the unripe berries.  Treated with sulfur dioxide they retain their green color and are then preserved in brine or vinegar.  Their flavor is fresh and piquant and spicy.  These are particularly good in a creamy sauce flavored with cognac for pepper steak.

Pink peppercorns are the fruit of a plant from a different family, originally thought to be poisonous.  This has been proven to be no longer true, however.

Black pepper along with other spices from the East changed the course of world history.  It was the rare luxury of these spices that led to efforts to find a sea route to the Spice Islands which ultimately provided world-wide dominance for Spain and Portugal during the Age of Discovery.

The pepper from Madagascar is known to be the finest, most aromatic pepper in the world.  Since Madagascar was a French colony, until it gained independence in the 1960’s, most of the harvest is imported to France because it is the preferred pepper of French chefs.  From there it reaches a few other European countries.   Before Old Stone Market began importing it in 2000, it was not available in North America. We receive a yearly shipment of 2000 pounds, which we sell and distribute throughout the United States.

Along with salt, pepper is the most widely used condiment in today’s cuisine.

Madagascar peppercorns are truly an extraordinary product and can be purchased from oldstonemarket.com

Source: http://www.oldstonemarket.com

About Karen Vaucher

Karen Vaucher is a caterer and owner of Old Stone Market spice company in Harper, TX. She lives on a ranch there, where she raises goats, llamas and chickens. She previously owned French bistros in New York, including Bistro du Nord and Bar du Theatre, which she sold to chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. See the Co-op Cafe for access to Karen's wonderful spices!