When the Visigoths besieged Rome in the fifth century AD, the Goth King Alaric demanded 3000 pounds of peppercorns as part of the ransom to be paid. He knew that he had the Romans by the short and curlies (so to speak). They loved all types of peppercorn. But pepper was also worth a hell of lot of cash.
In modern times, this seems crazy. Pepper is today one of the world’s most ubiquitous spices. It’s in every pantry (even if it’s buried at the back) and on the table of every cafe (except the fancy ones where a waiter comes around with a grinder). However, pepper was once so valuable, it was used as a currency.
Peppercorn rent now means a small sum – however, back when the term ‘peppercorn rent’ was coined it meant an exorbitant fee.
Piper Nigrum is the plant that the peppercorn comes from. It is native to the Malabar Coast of India however most of the world’s production now takes places elsewhere. After the Romans established sea trading routes for the spice, Hindu colonists took the spice across to Java (Indonesia and Malaysia). It grows well near the equator so modern day production hubs of all types of peppercorn are in Thailand, tropical Africa, the South Sea Islands and Brazil.
3 types of peppercorn and how to use them
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the wrinkled beads of red, white, green and black in your grinder are from different plants. However, they are all the same plant that has been treated differently after harvest to get a different product.
- Black peppercorns are picked when green (unripe) then rubbed from their stems and dried. They contain an enzyme in their outer husk that turns black as it matures. A pinch of black pepper along with a pinch of salt is what ‘seasons’ food and lifts the taste.
- White peppercorns are picked when red (ripe) and soaked under gently running water for 2 weeks so that the outer husks rot and can be rubbed away easily. After that they are dried. White peppercorns can be ground and used in the same way as a black pepper but don’t leave black specks in food. Often pepper grinders will contain a mix of both types of peppercorn.
- Green peppercorns can be bought dried or pickled. They have been picked when green (unripe) the they are either boiled to remove the enzyme then dried OR simply brined. They are a milder flavouring ingredient, but still have a great peppery taste.
Pepper also features in spice mixes, pickling mixes and is a key ingredient in chai spice. It’s a good gateway spice to experiment with if you are a little afraid of using spices in the kitchen.
NB: Szechuan pepper and pink peppercorns don’t come from Piper Nigrum, but from other plants entirely.