Called the “king of spices”, pepper has a long history of being used as a seasoning, a preservative, and even currency.
Black pepper is indigenous only to Kerala, a province in southwest India. References to pepper appear in Greek and Roman texts, suggesting an ancient trade between India and the West. As early as 1000 B.C., traders from southern Arabia controlled the spice trade and pepper routes, enjoying a huge monopoly over an increasingly profitable business. To protect their valuable routes, traders created fantastical stories about the hardships endured in order to procure spices. What Englishman in his right mind would want to travel around the globe just to be attacked by a winged serpent guarding a pepper pit?
By medieval times, the middle leg of pepper trade routes was still firmly controlled by Muslim traders, while Italian city-states like Venice and Genoa held a monopoly on shipping lines once the spice reached the Mediterranean. Pepper was costly to ship—the Silk Road, the most well-known trade route, stretched over 4,000 miles—but was such a desirable spice that Italian traders could essentially set their own prices. This led to pepper’s status as a luxury item in medieval Europe.
Eventually, the rest of Europe got tired of paying the high Venetian prices for pepper imports and decided to take matters into their own hands. Thus began the age of Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Sir Francis Drake and other explorers. Indeed, Columbus stocked the holds of his ships with what he believed to be pepper and brought the spice all the way from the West Indies. Only back in Spain did he discover that his ships weren’t full of priceless peppercorns but worthless chili peppers!
Black pepper is a perennial, woody, flowering vine in the family Piperaceae, cultivated for its fruit, known as a peppercorn, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning. When fresh and fully mature, it is about 5 mm in diameter and dark red, and contains a single seed, like all drupes.
Black pepper is produced from the still-green, unripe drupes of the pepper plant. The drupes are cooked briefly in hot water, both to clean them and to prepare them for drying. The heat ruptures cell walls in the pepper, speeding the work of browning enzymes during drying. The drupes dry in the sun or by machine for several days, during which the pepper skin around the seed shrinks and darkens into a thin, wrinkled black layer. Once dry, the spice is called black peppercorn. On some estates, the berries are separated from the stem by hand and then sun-dried without the boiling process.
Once the peppercorns are dried, pepper spirit and oil can be extracted from the berries by crushing them. Pepper spirit is used in many medicinal and beauty products. Pepper oil is also used as an ayurvedic massage oil and in certain beauty and herbal treatments.
By far the most frequently used spice, pepper blends and mixes add an excellent depth of flavor to nearly any savory dish, and many sweet dishes as well. Black pepper is perhaps the best-loved and most widely used spice in the world, adding both heat and depth of flavor to nearly any dish.