When the Visigoth Alaric I besieged Rome in 408 C.E., the ransom he demanded to lift the siege included gold, silver, slaves, and 3000 pounds of pepper. Pepper has been eaten and used in medicines since ancient times, and its value was such that it was even used to pay taxes, rents, bribes and dowries.
Where is pepper from?
Pepper was originally native to the Western Ghats of India, where it grows wild in the tropical mountains there. Today the majority of pepper is cultivated in Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil and India, and is widely consumed all around the world.
Once one of the most valuable commodities in the world, the “King of Spices” is now something that is taken almost for granted. Pepper once formed the basis of Roman trade with India, and was considered a necessity for daily life in Rome. Western Europe only really became familiar with pepper in the Middle Ages, where it was included in dowries and rent payments. It wasn’t until the Age of Exploration that the use of it in Western Europe really took off, after Vasco Da Gama reached Western India in 1498.
No, it’s not the same as ‘bell peppers’
Christopher Columbus sort of confused the issue at this point, discovering not one but two plants he called pepper: ‘Jamaican Pepper’, also known as Allspice, and chilli peppers. Neither are related to black pepper.
What are peppercorns?
Black, white and green peppercorns are the fruits of the same plant, Piper nigrum. When still green and immature the fruits are picked to produce green pepper; fully-grown but still green they are picked and dried to produce black pepper; and slightly riper still they are picked to produce white pepper – for white pepper the fruits are soaked in water to soften and remove the outer layer.
There are more than 1000 species in the Piper genus that form part of the larger family Piperaceae. The one familiar to the Ancient Greeks and Romans would have been Piper longum, or Long Pepper. This form is still used in traditional medicines or made into essential oils.
Pepper has been used in traditional medicine for many thousands of years. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine it was used as an immune enhancer, and to treat indigestion, diarrhea and even epilepsy.
Peppercorns are rich in vitamins A and K, dietary fibre, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and manganese among others. It can act as an antioxidant, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and in studies on rats has shown potential anti-cancerous properties. Incidentally, pepper can also be used as a pesticide against both mammals and insects.
The hot taste and aroma of pepper comes from an alkaloid, called piperine. This key ingredient can act as a bioavailability enhancer in the body. Bioavailability basically means how much of a drug or nutrient that is absorbed and is able to be used by the body. So adding pepper to turmeric, for example, would increase the amount of turmeric that gets absorbed into the body, potentially enhancing its anti-inflammatory properties.
A word of caution:
There may be a note of caution needed here. Black pepper’s bioavailability properties may cause the levels of some medications in the bloodstream to increase. Therefore it may be wise to discuss dosages with your health professional if you consume lots of pepper.
Pepper is a staple in cooking and is used in so many dishes around the world. If added during cooking it is considered a spice, if added afterwards it’s considered a condiment.
Black pepper adds a dark and pungent aroma and flavour to food. White pepper is also commonly used and has a slightly milder flavour, and its lighter color is said to compliment white sauces and other light-colored foods. Green peppercorns are often preserved in vinegar or brine and served pickled.
Like a lot of people, I add black pepper to almost everything I cook. Here’s a steak and peppercorn sauce recipe. I hope you enjoy it!