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One day a few weeks ago, the silliest of realisations hit me. I’d been chatting with a friend as we ate lunch and casually asked if he had some pepper. It suddenly hit me that I had absolutely no idea where pepper comes from. This simplest of condiments ever present at every meal and I had no idea what it was. I mentioned it to said friend and found he didn’t know either. So I set out to discover the origin of pepper and enlighten you all with my findings. Now I had assumed that pepper corns were some kind of dried seed but this is not the case. Pepper is actually the fruit of a plant called Piper Nigrum (this is the Latin name meaning pepper black). Piper Nigrum is a tropical growing plant said to originate from Madagascar (or Malabar in India) and is most commonly found it Southern India, the West Indies, China, Indonesia, and Borneo. It thrives best in rich, fertile soil in a shady spot - sometimes under coffee trees. The Black Pepper plant is a perennial, climbing or trailing shrub that can reach up to 20ft in height. The flowers are small and white and the berries (the fruit which provides us with pepper) are red. The plant begins to fruit when it’s around 4 years old and continues to do so up until around 15 years of age. To grow well, Pepper needs high temperatures and a long rainy season - so even though Britain could certainly match the latter I don’t think I will have much chance with growing my own. When fully ripe the berries are red but to make pepper they need to be gathered before they are fully ripe. Once gathered, the berries are then placed on mats or leaves to dry in the sun. Here is becomes dry and shrivelled and loses any colouration. Hey presto - a peppercorn! White pepper actually comes from the same plant only the dried riper berries are macerated in water then the outer shells are rubbed away. This leaves the less pungent remains of the berry which is white in colour. If you look at black pepper you
can see the flecks of white in it. Apparently the quality of a peppercorn is based on its weight - the heavier the better. A good quality peppercorn should sink if placed in water. What particularly interested me whilst researching for this opinion is the wonderful history and status the humble peppercorn has. Here in the west it is just something we stick on the table at dinner-time with the salt cellar but pepper has a far more glorious past. Both ancient Chinese and Sanskrit texts mention pepper. Ancient Hindu poetry mentions it also as does the writings of Plinius and Dioscorides. In 408ad the Germanic tribe known as the Visigoths (or just simply the Goths - cool!) forced Rome to pay up a tribute to them and three thousand pounds worth of this tribute was paid in pepper. Pepper was one of the earliest things traded between east and west and in Europe pepper was regularly used as currency. The term ‘peppercorn rent’ comes from rent being paid in pepper in the middle ages. Rather than this meaning that people weren’t paying much at all for their land or homes as suggested by our understanding that a ’peppercorn rent’ is a nominal or low rent - pepper had an extremely high value. The fact that was often given to royalty as a gift demonstrates this. In a country such as England during the middle ages most seasoning consisted of salt therefore the ‘pepperer’ was considered very important in the community. Soldiers might be paid in pepper for a successful campaign, dowries of pepper given - from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the plays of William Shakespeare, pepper has sprinkled it’s way across the earth and into our hearts, stomachs and banks. Whilst the west delighted in having something different from salty food to taste, the East had long since recognised the powerful healing properties of pepper. In India, pepper is considered to have properties that ward off aging and is
seen as an important detoxifier. It really is a useful thing to sprinkle on your chips because pepper also aids digestion. For an even spicier evening it is also considered to be an aphrodisiac. The aromatherapy oil is used to clear the head and is great for colds and flu. I can still remember my Gran used to eat more pepper whenever she was ill and had a temperature. Pepper is often used in snuff to make it more effective. Diluted in a carrier oil, black pepper oil is wonderful for massaging aching muscles and for treating poor circulation. Pepper has even been used in certain cases of food poisoning. A warning note - black pepper oil can cause irritation to the skin so make sure you follow guideline if you use the oil - both externally and internally. Of course most of us will simply know pepper as being something rather tasty to put on food. My Dad recommends rubbing cracked pepper into a steak before cooking - being veggie I can’t vouch for this but he says it’s very tasty. Personally I have pepper on practically everything. I don’t much care for salt so this is my absolute favourite seasoning. I am regularly known to eat mayonnaise and course ground pepper on toast - yum! I love it sprinkled on vegetable stews and cream of tomato soup. Scrambled eggs just aren’t the same without it. Pepper can be used to spice up winter fruit compotes and is fantastic with Strawberries. Try steeping strawberries with a little balsamic vinegar a few peppercorns and the zest of lemon or orange for about 15 minutes and serve it with whipped cream. The flavours don’t sound like they would mix but they really do! Another idea is roasted strawberries with black pepper. You can find the recipe at this link below http://www.recipe.com/whatcook/recipes/roastedstrawberry.htm I haven’t tried it yet but I will do because it sounds wonderful. So there you have it - the fascinating history and
uses of pepper. The King of Spices. Well I never!