Pepper, Piper nigrum, is known as the King of Spices. It was the first recorded spice dating back more than 4000 years, heavily sought after with countries sailing hundreds of miles to obtain it, traded for currency and associated with wealth and power. It is still the most widely used spice and third most added ingredient to recipes.
Black pepper comes from the berries of the pepper plant; a vine native to India, that thrives in tropical climates, at an elevation of 1500 feet above sea level with about 100 inches of rainfall yearly. The vine can grow 30 feet in height, supported by trees and spreading along the ground, rooting any place the stems touch the ground. Black peppercorns are made from green berries that have been heated in a hot water bath, then dried, leaving them dark and wrinkled. Green peppercorns are unripe berries and white pepper comes from ripe berries that have been soaked in brine to remove the outer skin leaving the white seed. Pink peppercorns are from a different plant species entirely, Schinus molle, which is a pepper tree native to South America and related to ragweed. If you have an allergy to ragweed, you might want to keep this in mind.
Pepper accounts for one-fourth of the world’s spice trade. Today, the major commercial producers are India and Indonesia, but Vietnam and China are also large contributors. The largest consumers are Western Europe, US, Japan and Korea. Pepper is generally identified by the port of export or the region it was grown in, like Malabar or Tellicherry.
Pepper’s spicy flavor comes from a compound in the outer skin and the seed called piperine, and is about 1% as hot as the compound in chile peppers, capsaicin. It is also an affective deterrent to insects and can be mixed with ground coffee and cinnamon and sprinkled on the top of the soil to repel aphids and spider mites. It can also be made into a spray solution by adding ½ tsp of black ground pepper to a quart of warm water to deter ants, silverfish, roaches and moths.
Pepper loses flavor through evaporation and light exposure, so airtight storage away from light is important to maintain flavor. Cooking it for too long will diminish its flavor so add it near the end of the cooking process.