Today’s most popular spice comes in many varieties.
I was never very good in Latin. Never thought I would need it or use it. I had no intention of becoming a doctor, pharmacist, or lawyer, so what the heck good was Latin to me. Well, sometimes the Latin name for plants is the only way to get clarity when you are trying to talk about something like peppercorns. As it happens, there are at least five different plants whose spice is called peppercorns. I’m afraid there is just too much information to cover in just one lesson. In fact, this should be considered the third in a five part series, the first would be the very first lesson, pimenta officinalis and pimenta dioica, allspice berries, a.k.a. Jamaican pepper. The second being a previous lesson on aframomum melegueta, grains of paradise. This lesson will cover the most common of these five different peppercorns, piper nigrum.
Today’s most popular spice, pepper, is so plentiful that we have become spoiled. In the 15th Century the piper nigrum variety of peppercorns, were so rare that they were used in some places for currency. There are three basic varieties of piper nigrum pepper, green, black, and white. Each color depends on when and how the pepper was picked and prepared.
Let’s start with green. Once the small white flowers of the piper nigrum have formed green berries in grape like clusters, they may be picked and stored in water, vinegar, or brine. This climbing vine is grown in India and Indonesia. Green peppercorns have a bold fresh flavor. If the green peppercorns are allowed to dry in the sun, they become hard and brittle and range in color from dark brown to black.
Black peppercorns are the most common. They have a rich and spicy flavor. Most experts will say that Malabar peppercorns are the finest, with Tellicherry and Lampong being the best examples. Tellicherrys actually take their name from a small village in the Malabar region of Indonesia, Tellicherry. Left on the vine to ripen, green peppercorns will ripen and turn red. These peppercorns are then soaked in water and the red shells removed leaving a buff colored, smoother, softer peppercorn known as white peppercorns.
White pepper has the hottest flavor sometimes with a hint of ginger. White pepper is often used in white or light colored prepared dishes where the presence of black or green pepper might want to be hidden.
While pepper is used the world over on meat and savory dishes, don’t stop there. Pepper can be used, particularly white pepper, in cookies, cake, and fruit dishes. For an amazing taste try freshly ground black pepper on strawberries or other fresh fruit.