Pepper – When history books refer to the spice trade, what they are really talking about is the pepper trade. Pepper originally reached Europe over 3,000 years ago, and our craving for it has never diminished. It has been used as currency, exchanged ounce for ounce with gold, and used to pay ransoms, taxes, and dowries.
Today, the fruits of the Piper nigrum vine are the world’s largest spice crop in both volume and value. Native to India, they are now grown commercially in Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam, and Malaysia as well. Pepper owes its bite to an alkaloid called piperine, and its warm, woody, sometimes citrus-like flavor is derived from several essential oils. The balance of these essential oils and piperine vary according to the origin of the pepper: Indian Malabar pepper is reputedly the best with its balanced blend of bite and aroma; Indonesian lampong pepper has more bite and less aroma; Malaysian Sarawak pepper has even less aroma; and Brazilian and Vietnamese peppers generally contain less piperine, making them less pungent.
Of the several forms of pepper available to modern cooks, black pepper is by far the most common. It is produced by picking the berries when they are still green, fermenting them briefly, and then drying them. In the course of fermenting and drying, the berries shrink and the skin becomes black or dark brown and wrinkled. The skin is where many of the essential oils are located, giving black pepper its unique and complex aroma and flavour.
White pepper is the inner core of berries that have been picked when they are yellow-orange and almost ripe. They are soaked briefly to soften the outer skin, which is then removed. Without this outer skin and its resident oils, white pepper is almost without aroma, and with only piperine to provide the bite, its flavour is considered flat and uninteresting by many. It is often used in cream sauces in order to avoid the visible black specks that black pepper would provide. The best white pepper is said to be Muntok from Indonesia.
Green peppercorns are picked green and freeze-fried or pickled in brine or vinegar. They have less bite than other forms and add an agreeable fresh note. Red peppercorns (not to be confused with pink pepper) are picked ripe and treated the same as green peppercorns. They have a delicate sweet, fruity taste, but are not widely available outside of Southeast Asia.