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Put some pepper on it



The spice of life, and cultures around the world

The bane of my serving days was remembering to offer freshly ground pepper. The restaurant that I worked in had an upstairs dining area with 30 tables and a downstairs dining area leading out to a large patio with 40 tables. There were two (!) pepper mills to meet the needs of dining clientele. The result was that servers were often running after one another to get the use of the pepper mill with hopes of delivering "freshly ground" to meals that were still warm and not yet half eaten. More often than not, the proffered mill would receive a cursory, dismissive wave of a patron’s hand. Not so a few hundred years ago when black peppercorns were traded ounce for ounce with gold.

Black pepper is the third most used addition to food after water and salt. It is hard to imagine, given the plentiful bounty of today, that the little black berries changed the course of history several times over.

Black pepper ( piper nigrum) is native to the Malibar Coast of India and to Indonesia and it was commonly used as a spice in India and China centuries before Alexander the Great introduced it into Greece. The Romans were the first to impose custom duty on peppercorns at Alexandria around 176 AD. Trade with the Roman Empire was based on five essential luxuries: African ivory, Chinese silk, Germanian amber, African incense and Indian pepper. Pepper spread through the Empire and remained an expensive commodity through to the middle ages, when peppercorns were used to pay ransoms, taxes and exchange currency.

The accidental discovery of the New World was the result of ambition to find a short cut to India for a consistent supply of spices. The struggle for control over spice producing regions led to all out wars between England, Holland and Portugal between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Today pepper is cultivated in India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil.

Black pepper is a perennial vine with heart shaped leaves and creamy-white aromatic flowers. Peppercorns are the berries that grow in tiny grape-like clusters which are processed to produce three basic types of peppercorns – black, white and green. Black peppercorns are the most commonly used form. Unripe berries are picked, left to ferment for a few days and then dried, becoming shriveled, wrinkled and dark black. The flavour is pungent, slightly sweet and very strong.

Soaking ripe pepper berries in a salt water solution helps to remove the outer husk which is then rubbed off to reveal a gray inner peppercorn. When dried, these become white peppercorns. They have a more mellow flavour and the advantage of not adding black specks to food, particularly white sauces.

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