Know Your Pepper
Piper nigrum and other plants
The History of the Pepper Trade
One of the first commodities ever to be traded between the Orient and Europe, pepper features often in texts from medieval times. Rents, dowries and taxes are recorded as being paid in pepper, and tradesman who dealt in the spice were referred to as 'Pepperer' (England), 'Pfeffersacke' (Germany) or 'Poivrier' (France). The over land trade route went along the well known Silk Road, and back then Alexandria, Genoa and Venice, well placed at the end of the silk road, owed their prosperity to the pepper trade. However this was due to change, in 1453 the Ottaman Empire took Constantinople (now Istanbul) and command of the silk road route. They were able to set high tariffs on trade, making the Europeans keen to find an alternative route.
In 1498 Vasco da Gamma, the Portugese explorer discovered a sea route to the Malabar Coast, creating a much more cost effective route for the trade. This meant that the lucrative pepper trade could be monopolised by traders in Lisbon. This was to continue for two centuries, while the earlier trade centers suffered a sharp decline.
The Dutch get in on the act in 1595 courtesy of Houtman of Holland. A voyage to Indonesia lead to them taking charge of pepper production in Sumatra, Java and the Moloccas.
By 1650 cultivation had spread though Maritime South East Asia into areas controlled by the British. London now became the main trade centre prices dropped, pepper became a condiment on everybodies table.
In USA the trade started with a shipment of Sumatran pepper worth $100,000, courtesy of a certain Jonathan Carnes of Massachusetts. After that Salem and Boston became established as trade centres.
These days pepper is a worldwide trade, with USA, Western Europe Japan and Korea being major consumers. Main producers are Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Malaysia, China and Sri Lanka.
Black Pepper and White Pepper
Both of these are produced from the plant Piper nigrum.
The best quality White Pepper is produced from the fruit of the plant, known as peppercorns. These are harvested when mature, just as they turn from green to red, then soaked in water for a week or so in a process known as retting. In that week enzymic reactions and fermentations occur, not only giving genuine white pepper it's unique flavour and odour but also causing the dark outer skin to loosen and detach. After that the peppercorns are rubbed to remove the rest of the outer skin, then they can be dried and ground.
Black pepper is produced by harvesting peppercorns while they are still green. For the best black pepper the whole corn is dried and ground creating a light coloured pepper of very good quality. The outer husk contains additional citrus and floral flavour notes.
It's also possible to separate the outer husk mechanically from the inner by decortication. This allows the production of a white pepper from the inner parts, while what remains can be used for black pepper.
Less common are Green Peppercorns, these are the same as black peppercorns but have been processed in a way that keeps their colour, for instance by freeze drying.
How to Identify Tradition Style Pepper.
White Pepper produced by retting picks up a complex blend of taste and odour, is due to the microbial action which occurs only when traditional fermentation processing methods are used. The distinctive aroma that has traditionally been a feature of English cuisine is easily picked out by connoisseurs, to those less familiar the give away is actually a subtle hint of manure in a complex blend which is rich and warm.
White pepper produced by decortication lacks the complexity of flavour, but still has the light colour which makes it ideal in foods such as white sauces, where a darker pepper would cause discolouration.
Traditional Black Pepper from the whole peppercorn can be seen as a mixture of dark and light pieces when course ground, and is a relatively light color when fine ground.
Black pepper produced by decortication creates a lower cost pepper with a dark colouration, while this lacks the flavour depth of traditionally produced peppers it can still add the familiar pepper zing to a product.
Beyond Piper nigrum.
While the plant Piper nigrum is now the dominant source of peppers worldwide this has not always been the case.
Before the discovery of Piper nigrum by Europeans pepper was obtained from Piper longum, called the Long Pepper. Indeed the term 'pepper' itself derives from the Indian name 'pippali' which referred to the long pepper.
While long pepper is actually stronger in taste than black pepper it is now much neglected and since the 14th century is something of a rarity in Europe, with the discovery of Chilli peppers from South America contributing to it's downfall.
Grains of Paradise is the evocative name of the seeds of Aframomum melegueta. Grown in West Africa this is another neglected pepper that was a popular alternative in Europe in the 14th and 15th Centuries. In addition to a peppery tang it has an aromatic flavour and is said to aid digestion, particularly in comparison to black pepper.
Cubeb (Piper cubeba) is another rarity. Sometimes described as a cross between pepper and pimento (allspice) cubebs have a persistent aromatic flavour with a hint of bitterness. Despite being overlooked, cubebs make a very attractive gourmet alternative.
Pink Peppercorns, the dried berry of a tree, Schinus molle, produce a sweet and tangy pepper can be confused with pink peppercorns produced by a special processing of ripe Piper nigrum. However although the shape is the same Pink Peppercorns are softer and hollow.
Szechuan Peppers are the small fruit of the pricky ash tree ( Zanthoxylum simulans, although other similar species can used). This has a very different taste to the other peppers, containing no piperine. Apart from a slight lemony overtone it creates an unusual tingly numbness in the mouth.
|Martin Hoxworth - Group Sales Manager: martincamstar.co.uk|