Back to the Roots Part 5: Pepper
Written by Sabine Henning
These days of celebration are very well established in the United States, Canada, some Caribbean countries and Liberia. There are also traditionally similar existing festive days in Germany and Japan. During these special days we celebrate the blessings of the harvest in the preceding year. Although the dates vary in different regions and years – on the second Monday of October in Canada and the fourth Thursday of November in the United States – the meaning is the same, namely to be thankful for the harvest of field crops saved in clean and dry warehouses to feed us over the winter. What a good and important tradition in our Ag world!!!
See below a very typical Thanksgiving dinner in North America. – What a delicious and rich meal for the blessing of the hard labor necessary to produce and harvest our food!
Wishing you all a very blessed and lovely Thanksgiving, wherever you live in the world!!!
Welcome back to my next post about specialty crops grown in Southeast Asia!
Yes, your perception is right; this time I have to modify my headline, because the next spice I want to introduce to you here, is not originally from Indonesia but the whole Southeast. It is very well known all over the world and not missed in any household nowadays. See below the pepper plant. (Pic 3)
The pepper plant grows as a perennial woody vine up to 4 m (13 ft) in height on supporting trees, poles, or trellises. (see Pic. 4) This spreading vine forms roots readily where trailing stems touch the ground.
A single stem produces 20 to 30 fruiting spikes. The harvest begins as soon as one or two fruits at the base of the spikes begin to turn red, so truly before the fruit is fully mature, and still hard. If allowed to ripen completely the fruit loses pungency, and ultimately falls off and is lost. The spikes are collected and spread out to dry in the sun, then the peppercorns are stripped off the spikes.
The plants are propagated by cutting them about 40 to 50 cm (16 to 20 in) long and tying them to neighboring trees or climbing frames at distances of about 2 m (6 ft 7 in) apart. Trees with rough bark are favored over those with smooth bark, as the pepper plants climb rough bark more easily. Competing plants are cleared away, leaving only sufficient trees to provide shade and permit free ventilation. The roots are covered in leaf mulch and manure, and the shoots are trimmed twice a year.
Wild pepper grows in the Western Ghats region of India. Into the 19th century, the forests contained expansive wild pepper vines, as recorded by the Scottish physician Francis Buchanan in his book “A journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar (Volume III) (Retrieved in 2015 by Deccan Herald [i]). As no successful grafting of commercial pepper on wild pepper has been achieved to date, wild pepper is gradually decreasing, because of less quality and yield competing with continuously improved cultivars.
As an overview, see Pic. 5 for the Global Production of black pepper. Interestingly, Indonesia is the number two producer of pepper!
Variants of the peppercorn
As shown in Pic. 6 there exist different variants of pepper – visually separated by the color of the yielded peppercorns. We differentiate mainly between black, green, white and red pepper. Black and green pepper is harvested from the unripe drupe of the pepper plant.
For black pepper production, the green, unripe drupes are cooked for a short time in hot water to clean and prepare them for drying (Pic. 7 shows a typical black peppercorn). The green dried peppercorns are treated with sulphur dioxide, canning or freeze-drying to retain the green color. Another method is the preservation of green drupes in vinegar or brine.
Red pepper usually is the ripe peppercorns that can be preserved in vinegar and brine, as well as dried using the same color-preserving techniques as green pepper.
Finally, white pepper solely consists of the seed while the darker colored flesh (skin) around the fruit is removed.
As said, pepper is native to South Asia and Southeast Asia, and has been known to Indian cooking since at least 2000 BCE (Before the Common Era). Mainly the lost ancient port city of India, which is Muziris in Kerala, was very famous for exporting black pepper and various other spices. Peppercorns were a highly prized good, often referred to as "black gold" and used as a form of commodity money. The legacy of this trade remains in some Western legal systems that recognize the term "peppercorn rent" as a token payment for something that is, essentially, being given (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peppercorn_(legal)).
Before the 16th century, pepper was grown in Java, Sunda, Sumatra, Madagascar, Malaysia, and everywhere in Southeast Asia. These areas traded mainly with China, or used the pepper locally. Ports in the Malabar area also served as a stop-off point for much of the trade in other spices from farther east in the Indian Ocean. Following the British hegemony in India, virtually all of the black pepper found in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa was traded from the Malabar region.
For those, who want to understand more about the historical development of this Indian coast region, just google “Malabar region map”.
Some confusion comes up when Piper nigra is mixed with long pepper and newly discovered chili pepper, which are closely related species. The Romans just called them Piper.
In really ancient times, black pepper was found in mummification rituals of Ramses II back in 1213 BCE. Also, in ancient Greece (400 BCE) pepper was known as a rare and expensive item, that only very rich people could afford. In order to give an idea how this spice came to Europe, in Pic. 8 you can see the old trade route from Italy to India.
As an explanatory remark I found the following note about pepper from Pliny the Elder (born as Gaius Plinius Secundus, AD 23–79), who was a Roman author, a naturalist and natural philosopher:
It is quite surprising that the use of pepper has come so much into fashion, seeing that in other substances which we use, it is sometimes their sweetness, and sometimes their appearance that has attracted our notice; whereas, pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation to either fruit or berry, its only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India! Who was the first to make trial of it as an article of food? and who, I wonder, was the man that was not content to prepare himself by hunger only for the satisfying of a greedy appetite?
— Pliny, Natural History 12.14
In postclassical Europe it is reported that pepper was used as currency and in the Middle Ages, pepper was said to be often used to conceal the taste of partially rotten meat. That of course was never proved as pepper was a valuable spice, that only rich people could afford and one can imagine that no rotten meat appears on their tables.
Getting the Portuguese, English and Dutch traders into play, pepper supplies into Europe increased and the price of pepper declined (though the total value of the import trade generally did not). So, it happened that pepper, which in the early Middle Ages had been an item exclusively for the rich, started to become more of an everyday seasoning among those of more average means. Today, pepper accounts for one-fifth of the world's spice trade.
In China it is questionable if black pepper was known about in the second century BCE. However, in the third century CE, black pepper made its first definite appearance in Chinese texts, as hujiao or "foreign pepper". Further in the 13th Century, Marco Polo testifies of the popularity of pepper in China, and in the 15th Century black pepper returned to China in such huge amounts, that the once costly spice became a common commodity.
The spicy taste of black pepper derives from the piperine inside the outer skin and seed of the fruit. Black pepper contains between 4.6 and 9.7% piperine by mass, and white pepper slightly more than that. Refined piperine, by weight, is about one percent as hot as the capsaicin found in chili peppers. The outer fruit layer, left on black pepper, also contains aroma-contributing terpenes, including germacrene (11%), limonene (10%), pinene (10%), alpha-phellandrene (9%), and beta-caryophyllene (7%), which give citrusy, woody, and floral notes.
Pepper loses flavor and aroma through evaporation, so airtight storage helps preserve its spiciness longer. Pepper can also lose flavor when exposed to light, which can transform piperine into nearly tasteless isochavicine. Once ground, pepper's aromatics can evaporate quickly; most culinary sources recommend grinding whole peppercorns immediately before use for this reason. Handheld pepper mills or grinders, which mechanically grind or crush whole peppercorns, are used for this as an alternative to pepper shakers that dispense ground pepper. Spice mills such as pepper mills (see Pic. 7) were found in European kitchens as early as the 14th century, but the mortar and pestle used earlier for crushing pepper have remained a popular method for centuries, as well.
Pic. 5: "Pepper (piper spp.), Production/Crops". Food And Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Statistical Division (FAOSTAT). 2016. Retrieved 4 December 2018
Pic. 6: By Chindukulkarni – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27086714
Pic. 7: By Sanjay ach - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2629468
Pic. 8: By Morn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24086492