Black pepper is a seasoning produced from the fermented, dried, unripe red berries, called peppercorn, of the plant Piper nigrum. The same peppercorn, when unripe green, can be dried, or preserved in brine or vinegar, to make green peppercorn; or when ripe, dried and dehusked to make white peppercorn, for white pepper.
It is one of the most common spices in European cuisine and its descendants, having been known and prized since antiquity for its flavor and its use as a preservative. The spiciness of black pepper is due to the chemical piperine. Ground black peppercorn, usually referred to simply as "pepper", may be found on nearly every dinner table in some parts of the world, accompanied by its constant companion salt.
White pepper differs only in being prepared from the ripe fruits. These, after collection, are kept in the house three days and then bruised and washed in a basket with the hand until the stalks and pulpy matter are removed, after which the seeds are dried. It is, however, sometimes prepared from the dried black pepper by removing the dark outer layer. It is less pungent than the black but possesses a finer flavour.
Pepper has been a popular spice since prehistoric times. It was probably first cultivated on the Malabar coast of India. Edward Gibbon wrote, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that pepper was "a favourite ingredient of the most expensive Roman cookery." Referring to the expense of Indian spices such as pepper, Pliny the Elder complained that "there is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces." It is said that Alaric the Visigoth demanded from Rome a ransom of more than a ton of pepper when he besieged the city in 410.
It is commonly believed that, during the Middle Ages, pepper was used to conceal the taste of partially rotten meat. There is, however, no evidence to support this claim. Pepper was traded by Arabs during the Middle Ages in the profitable Indian Ocean spice trade. It was so valuable that it was often used as collateral or even currency. Its exorbitant price during the middle ages was one of the inducements which led the Portuguese to seek a sea-route to India. In the late 15th century, Portugal took over the Indian Ocean trade, including pepper, due to the Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain and a separate treaty with the sultan of Ternate. The trade later became dominated by the Dutch in the 17th century. Today, pepper accounts for one fourth of the world's spice trade.
- In southwestern India, where the pepper plant grows wild, it is found in rich, moist, leafy soil, in narrow valleys, propagating itself by running along the ground and giving off roots into the soil. The native method of cultivation is to tie up the end of the vines to the neighboring trees at distances of at least 6 feet, especially to those having a rough bark, in order that the roots may easily attach themselves to the surface. The underwood is then cleared away, leaving only sufficient trees to provide shade and permit free ventilation. The roots are covered in leaves and manure, and the shoots are trimmed twice a year.
In places where pepper does not grow wild, ground is selected which permits of free drainage, but which is not too dry nor liable to flooding, and cuttings are planted at about a foot from the trees either in the rainy season in June or in the dry season in February. Sometimes several cuttings about 18 inches long are placed in a basket and buried at the root of the tree, the cuttings being made to slope towards the trunk. In October or November the young plants are covered with a mixture of leaves and cow dung. On dry soils the young plants require watering every other day during the dry season for the first three years. The plants bear fruit in the fourth or fifth year, and if raised from cuttings are fruitful for seven years. The pepper from plants raised from cuttings is said to be superior in quantity and quality, so this method is most frequently adopted.
In Sumatra the ground is cleared, ploughed, and sown with rice. Cuttings of the vine are planted in September, 5 feet apart each way, together with a sapling of quick growth and rough bark. The plants are now left for twelve or eighteen months and then entirely buried, except a small piece of bent stem, whence new shoots arise, three or four of which are allowed to climb the tree near which they are planted. These shoots generally yield flowers and fruits the next year. Two crops are collected every year, the principal one being in December and January and the other in July and August, the latter yielding pepper of inferior quality and in less quantity.
Two or three varieties of the pepper plant are cultivated; the one yielding the best kinds has broadly ovate leaves, five to seven in number, nerved and stalked. The flower-spikes are opposite the leaves, stalked and from 3 to 6 inches long; the fruits are sessile and fleshy. A single stem will bear from twenty to thirty of these spikes. The harvest begins as soon as one or two berries at the base of the spikes begin to turn red, and before the fruit is mature, but when full grown and still hard; if allowed to ripen, the berries lose pungency, and ultimately fall off and are lost. The spikes are collected in bags or baskets and dried in the sun. When dry the pepper is put into bags containing from 64 to 128 pounds.
- A Brief Primer on Black Pepper (http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/6/13/191849/698) at Kuro5hin
- Black pepper at Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages (http://www-ang.kfunigraz.ac.at/~katzer/engl/Pipe_nig.html)
- Why does pepper make you sneeze? (http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/pepper.html) from the Library of Congress