Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Black Pepper

Confession. I'm not a huge black pepper fan. I don't hate it, but I never understood the put-it-on-everything mentality. Those takeout pepper sachets usually - and regrettably - end up in the trash. But there was a time when black pepper wasn't so easily cast aside. Did you know it once commanded a hefty price? Pepper fueled empires, linked ancient trade routes and was as valuable as gold. Learn more about how it conquered the kitchen and how maybe we should rethink its indomitable reign.

A Brief History

Originating along the southwestern coast of India, in the region of Kerala, black pepper (Piper nigrum) has been a commodity since ancient times. Peppercorns were discovered in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. Roman ships imported it to every corner of the empire and historian Pliny the Elder complained two thousand years ago that the cost of white pepper was double that of black. Indeed pepper was so valuable that a ton of it was allegedly used to pay a ransom when the Visigoths sieged Rome in 408 CE.

By the Middle Ages, the Italians and the Arabs had a lock on the trade. With prices still high, pepper was reserved only for the wealthiest. This began to change when Spanish and Portuguese exploration opened up the spice trade in the 16th and 17th Centuries - arguably changing the world as a result - and pepper was no longer so precious. Later the British Empire, much like their Roman counterparts, exported pepper by the shiploads from far flung colonial plantations.

Pepper follows a similar narrative to other commodities - tea, coffee, sugar - that were once considered a luxury. With advances in transportation, economic expansion, and consumer demand, pepper, once the spice of kings, became the ubiquitous consort to the salt shaker. However, that may be changing.

In the last five years, increased demand for black pepper in China plus drought conditions have driven up prices 300 percent. With climate change, black pepper may once again be the stuff of luxury.

Factual Nibbles

  • Pepper comes from the Sanskrit word pippali.
  • Black pepper accounts for 20 percent of the world spice trade.
  • Pepper made its way all the way to Ancient Egypt 3,000 years ago. Allegedly the mummy of Ramses the Great had peppercorns stuffed in its nostrils to retain their shape.
  • If something is "pepper expensive" in Denmark, it's quite costly.
  • "Peppercorn rent" is an actual legal term in England used to denote a small amount paid to maintain a contract. Although people don't literally pay in peppercorns, there are exceptions. Every year the University of Bath pays the rent on its 999 year lease with a single peppercorn presented in a ceremony to the city council.

Cultivation

Peppercorn is the dried fruit of a flowering vine native to Southeast Asia. The berries grow in long green clumps and climb around tall trees, poles, and trellises in the jungle. When the berries turn red, the peppercorns are harvested to produce black and white pepper. Green peppercorns, however, are harvested before the berry has ripened. More on that in a moment.

P. nigrum grows best in a warm, moist environment with plenty of shade. Although native to India, it also grows in Cambodia, Indonesia and even Brazil. Vietnam is the world's largest producer of black pepper.

That said, two of the most famous pepper growing regions are Malabar and Tellicherry in India, producing some of the finest black pepper in the world. Other names you may encounter in the market are Sarawak from Malaysia and Lampong from Sumatra. Kampot pepper from Cambodia recently received protected status.

Environmental Impact

Most black pepper is produced by smallholder farmers in the countries mentioned above, who often mix peppercorn production in with cultivation of other food-producing crops, and indeed, the Oxford Companion to Food notes that peppercorn vines are often grown up other trees, such as palm and mango, on mixed plantations. In some cases, pesticides are used to control root rot and other problems common to Piper nigrum.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) tested pesticide residues on a number of different spices; they found residues of several different types of pesticides in both black and white pepper samples. (As a somewhat ironic aside, black pepper is being tested as a possible pesticide itself, having the ability to keep insects from laying eggs on leaves and other plant parts.) And there is more bad news. In some cases, growing spices like peppercorns are one of the (many) causes of rainforest destruction.

Peppercorns are also often fumigated with a couple of different compounds, including toxic ethylene oxide, to remove pests and possible contamination.

The good news? Organic, fair trade and sustainably grown black pepper is out there! If you're concerned about pesticide residues or the way in which your black pepper was grown and traded, look for certified organic and fair trade spices.

Characteristics

Peppercorns come in four colors - black, green, white and red. Black peppercorns, the most common, are harvested ripe, fermented and then dried, producing the characteristic wrinkled black surface. Some are blanched in boiling water first before drying. Green peppercorns, however, are harvested unripe and either brined or dried, retaining their characteristic color. White peppercorns are the dried peppercorn seed, the skin having been removed after soaking in water for a week. If you come across pink peppercorns, note that they are not from the same plant as P. nigrum. Instead they are from the Peruvian peppertree (Schinus molle), which is a member of the cashew family. Despite the name, Sichuan peppercorns are not botanically related to P. nigrum either.

Nutrition and effects on the body

Piperine, the alkaloid in pepper responsible or its pungent bite, is known to stimulate the taste buds and gastric juices. In Indian ayurvedic medicine, black pepper is used to treat respiratory illnesses and colds. from a strictly nutritional standpoint, black pepper contains only trace amounts of magnesium and calcium, and is usually not eaten in enough quantity to have much of a nutritional impact, anyway.

What to Do With It

Conventional wisdom says black pepper is a condiment that can be put on everything. I beg to differ and so does the internet. But what happens when we are selective about what we crack the grinder over? Yes, fresh black pepper is delightful on eggs and essential in mashed potatoes. It also pairs well with meats, from charticurie and steak to chicken and fish. Next time you have a haul of summer berries, try them with a little fresh pepper. There are, however, dishes where black pepper is the star - like classic French steak au poivre (see recipe, below). In Asia, peppercorns show up in many dishes, from Thai curries to Indian spice blends. (This recipe for mackerel with peppercorn and coconut milk sounds amazing, btw.) 

Storage

Provided you keep your peppercorns dry, sealed and away from extreme temperatures, they will last for a few years. Brined peppercorns keep much longer; however, white pepper has the shorter shelf life. The fresher the better.  

Pro tip

By far most of us encounter black pepper pre-ground and sold in tins - or in those takeout packets. But note that once the spice is ground, it quickly loses its aromatic flavor. You can remedy this by using a grinder for your black pepper as needed.

Recipe

Steak au Poivre

This is a bistro classic whose origins may be more American than French. Nevertheless, black pepper is the star of this dish and a worthy companion of a nice cut of sirloin or filet mignon. Since you'll be biting into a pungent layer of crushed peppercorn and seared beef, it's worth your time sourcing the best quality pepper. Adapted from Epicurious.com.

Ingredients:

4 (3/4- to 1-inch-thick) boneless beef top-loin (strip) steaks (8 to 10 oz each)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted organic butter, cut into 4 pieces
1/2 cup bourbon or rye
3/4 cup organic heavy cream

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 200 F. Chop shallots and get your ingredients ready.

2. Pat steaks dry with a paper towel and season with kosher salt.

3. Coarsely crush peppercorns with a mortar and pestle. Alternatively, you can place the peppercorns into a sealed plastic bag and use the bottom of a cast iron skillet. Coat both sides of the steaks with the crushed peppercorn.

4. Heat up cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil so that it coats the skillet. Sauté steaks in two batches if needed, cooking both sides, about six minutes in total for medium rare.

5. Transfer steaks to oven safe platter and place in oven to keep warm.

6. To make the sauce, add shallots and half the butter. Cook over medium-low heat until brown, scraping bit left from the steaks, 3-5 minutes.

7. Add bourbon or rye (a word of caution; it may ignite) and boil, stirring, until liquid is reduced to a glaze, 2 to 3 minutes. Add heavy cream and any meat juices accumulated on platter and boil sauce, stirring occasionally, until reduced by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter and cook over low heat, swirling skillet, until butter is incorporated. Serve sauce with steaks.