Most regions of the world have their own pungent “pepper” plants. But when we talk of pepper, we usually think of black pepper first. Black pepper (Piper nigrum) grows on a glossy-leaved vine which clings onto a support, such as a tree. These vines can climb up to 10 metres high, if allowed to, but commercial vines are usually pruned to 4 metres. Quite understandable as it is often picked by hand.
Each vine produces 20-30 stems of white or pink flowers, which take 6-8 months to fully ripen into peppercorns. Black pepper is native to the Malabar coast of south west India, although Vietnam is now the main producer.
Black, white, green and red peppercorns come from the same plant, Piper nigrum. The fruit starts off green before ripening to red.
Green peppercorns are nearly ripe and black peppercorns are picked when they are just turning from green to red, turning to a dark brown colour when they have dried.
White peppercorns are red or fully ripe seeds, soaked in water and fermented. The outer husk is removed and then the remaining white seed is dried.
- Black peppercorns – ground peppercorns add more heat to a dish and freshly ground retain more flavour. Lightly crushing the peppercorns allows the flavour of the spice to come through, with less of the heat.
- Green peppercorns – milder with a softer texture than black or white pepper. You can buy them dried or in brine.
- Red peppercorns – less common and more expensive. They are fruity, slightly sweet and hot.
- White peppercorns – are hot with less flavour than black peppercorns.
Black peppercorns are now grown all over the world, but it does need a tropical climate. And the growing conditions and the soil type affect the quality, size and flavour of peppercorns.
- Malabar is the most common Indian pepper. The best-quality is from Wyanad, with a fruity aroma and a clean bite. Tellicherry peppercorns are larger.
- Sarawak (Malaysia) peppercorns are smaller in size with more piney and herbaceous notes.
- Lampong (Indonesia) peppercorns have a more pungent heat with less aroma.
- Phu Quoc (Vietnam) peppercorns have a lemony fragrance and are less hot.
- Kampot (Cambodia) peppercorns have a smoky finish.
Other varieties are also worth exploring. Little known to us today these were frequently used in Europe 200 years ago:
- Cubeb (Piper cubeba) – is native to Indonesia and known as tailed pepper. They are larger than peppercorns and when raw have a pine flavour. Cooking brings out its allspice flavour.
- Long pepper (Piper longum) – originated in India and look like grey/black catkins. It has a pungent heat like black peppercorns, but the flavour is fruitier and more complex.
Not pepper at all, but these have a peppery heat or look like peppercorns.
- Pink pepper (Schinus molle or S. terebinthifolius) – are from Peru and Brazil and related to cashew and mango. The dried fruits are not hot and taste a little citrusy with a hint of pine.
- Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum simulans) and Japanese pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum) – are woody, citrus, tangy, quite sharp and numbing to the tongue.
- Mountain peppers from South America (Drimys piperita) and Tazmania (Drimys lanceolate) – Both are hotter than black peppercorns.
- Grains of Paradise or melegueta pepper (Amomum melegueta) – related to cardamom and ginger and is native to West Africa. The seeds are hot with gingery notes.
Pepper adds interest to lots of dishes, sweet as well as savoury, and are an important condiment in European cuisines. A grinder full of peppercorns is as essential to a dinner table as salt. To add more flavours to a pepper grinder it is now popular to combine different varieties. At Go Spice we love to use Rainbow Pepper, a popular mix of black, green and white peppercorns, and pink pepper.