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.
Emma’s Black Pepper Chicken Curry
This peppery and nutty curry with a kick demonstrates the different levels of flavour that pepper can bring to a dish. It is developed and has been published by professional spice blender, Emma Grazette, in her book Spice Trip.
Prep time: 15 mins + marinating Cook: 30 mins. Serves four.
1 x 1,5kg whole organic chicken, skinned and jointed, or 8 chicken thighs, skinned
4 tsp freshly cracked Tellicherry or Kampot black peppercorns
1 tsp turmeric
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp sea salt
3 white onions, half thinly sliced and half roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3cm ginger, peeled, chopped and finely grated
- Put chicken in large dish. In small bowl, combine a quarter of the black pepper, the turmeric, lemon juice and a pinch of salt, then rub all over the chicken and leave to marinate, covered for a few hours.
- Blend thoroughly chopped onions with garlic and ginger to make a paste.
- Toast remaining pepper in hot, dry plan until nutty taste.
- Head glug of oil in frying pan (with lid). Add fry sliced onions until soft and golden. Add onion paste, fry until all liquid has evaporated and the onion is browning.
- Add toasted pepper (reserve generous pinch for later) and chicken including all marinade juices, 300ml water and 1/2 tsp salt.
- Bring to boil, cover and simmer for 30 mins – add splash more water if curry gets too thick.
- Serve curry sprinkled with the reserved toasted black pepper, alongside some rice, warmed chapattis and salad.