Most of us don’t give pepper a second thought, even though it’s on almost every kitchen table. Yet this spice that we take for granted earned such respect centuries ago that it put wind in the sails of Columbus and practically changed the course of history by playing a key role in the development of trade.
History of pepper
Pepper is native to the monsoon forests of the Malabar coast in southwest India. In the early stages of the spice trade, Venice was the city through which all spices flowed. Pepper was the largest import, and because Europeans craved it so much that they consumed more than six and a half million pounds of it a year, the Venetians could set a price for the spice. When the price became prohibitive, other Europeans looked for new ways to procure the spice.
The Portuguese first gained control of the spice trade when Vasco de Gama reached the west coast of India, but their margin on pepper matched that of the Venetians. To make matters worse, the Dutch East India Company was formed, whose pepper shipments cost consumers even more. The British and French set up their own East India Companies and competition eventually drove down the price of pepper.
Six years before Vasco de Gama reached the East, Christopher Columbus set out in search of a similar route. Like other explorers, his goal was to return with a ship full of spices. When he landed in America, the closest thing to pepper was the chilli peppers used by the Indians. He brought the fiery vegetable back and called it by the same name as the spice, a confusion that continues to this day. Columbus would have been proud to know that once the pepper plant was brought to the New World, Brazil became one of the world’s largest producers of the spice.
Today, pepper is still king among spices and accounts for a quarter of all modern spice trade. Its ability to subtly enliven dishes without overpowering their flavour makes it indispensable in cuisines around the world. From the humble peppercorn grinder to expensive grinders with multi-coloured peppercorns, it is hard to imagine cooking without this spice.
Color of the peppercorns
Color of the peppercorn is defined based on level of ripeness when it was collected. Green peppercorn is obviously not fully ripe, therefore pepper collected in this phase is usually more fruity and less spicy. Black peppercorn is somewhere in middle and it’s most common way of producing. If we remove black skin on the pepper we get white peppercorn.
And lastly we have red pepper. Red color is indicator of ripeness and is achieved by letting pepper to ripe fully. This is usually most expensive peppercorn because it obviously requires more time till harvest is possible. This type of peppercorn is usually more spicy but also very sweet and aromatic. I my opinion the best pepper.
Types of peppercorns
These days when trade is interconnected and globalized we can get our hands on nearly any variety of peppercorns. Most of the peppercorns are actually same plant just grown in different conditions. This modifies taste of the final product and gives it uniqueness. Then there are peppercorns which are coming from completely different plant. The fruit is however resembling peppercorn and therefore we call it pepper.
Below I’ve gathered the most notable pepper and non-pepper varieties that you should definitely try.
The name Tellicherry is used to refer to a selected black pepper which, unlike regular pepper, is harvested at the highest possible stage of ripening. This longer ripening time makes the pepper berries larger and gives them a varied set of flavours. That is why this pepper is also referred to by the acronym TGSEB (Tellicherry Garbled Special Extra Bold), which means that it is the strongest and most beautiful pepper berries hand-picked and after harvesting, they undergo gentle drying and gentle processing. Only a small amount of the total pepper production is processed in this way due to the high quality requirements.
If we compare Tellicherry pepper with the classic pepper, at first inhalation we are surprised by the intoxicating rich aroma and then we discover citrus, cherry, fresh notes of tea leaves with a hint of cedar, accompanied by traces of juniper in its subtle fruity taste.
Thanks to this complexity of flavours, Tellicherry pepper has a wide range of uses in the kitchen. It can be used as a regular pepper, but with a much stronger flavour experience. In addition to its classic use to flavour all kinds of meats, poultry, fish and seafood or sauces and dressings, don’t be afraid to use it in desserts and fruit pies.
- Tellicherry pepper is suitable for all kinds of meat, sauces, dressings. It can be used just like classic black pepper
- Tellicherry pepper is named after only one of the first Indian trading ports from which pepper was imported to Europe
- Native of India, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala
- It is usually harvested at the stage of relative ripeness, i.e. somewhere between black and red
The Kampot pepper originates from Cambodia and is a rare pepper specialty, considered to be the finest pepper in the world. The knowledge of growing this plant has been passed down through generations in Kampot province since at least the 13th century. Its cultivation is very difficult because it has to be harvested at the right time and therefore most pepper growers avoid this variety.
Kampot pepper is produced in four forms: green, black, white and red, all of which come from the same plant. The difference lies in the way it is harvested and the time it takes to ripen. The green pepper as we know it retains its colour through a process of dehydration, while drying produces black pepper. The red colour is acquired when the balls reach full maturity and the white colour is due to the removal of the skin from the previously soaked red grains.
The cultivation of Kampot pepper has a long history. It was first described in the 13th century by the Chinese diplomat Zhu Daguan, who visited the Kampot area. Modern intensive production of Kampot pepper began in the 1870s during French colonial rule. At the beginning of the 20th century, about 8000 tonnes of Kampot pepper were produced annually, and in the 1960s about 3000 tonnes. However, further pepper production was severely affected by the civil war in Cambodia, and by the end of the 20th century only 4 tonnes per year were harvested.
- Kampot pepper goes well with meat, poultry and fish
- Originally from Cambodia, Kampot Province in the foothills of the Dâmrei Mountains
- Kampot pepper can be found in all stages of maturity, but most often black and red
Black pepper from the Malabar region of India is also known worldwide as tiger pepper.
The fact that another famous pepper, Tellicherry, is also grown in this area of India shows how important this pepper growing region is. Due to its quality, Malabar pepper is popular in all cuisines around the world.
Malabar pepper is very aromatic with a pleasant pungency and a subtle fruity aroma. Its slightly earthy flavour notes are ideal either for direct seasoning of roasted and grilled meats by grinding in a grinder or for marinating.
The mild pungency of this Malabar pepper also goes well with cheese and other sauces. However, in addition to savoury dishes, it is also used to flavour sweet dishes and desserts made from caramelised fruit or in jams.
The Malabar Coast, from which this pepper originates, is also called the pepper coast because the finest Malabar and Tellicherry peppers are grown here.
- Ideal for steaks, fish or vegetables
- Origin from the Malabar region of India
- It can be obtained at all stages of maturity
Lampong is a black pepper that comes from the Lampung region of South Sumatra, Indonesia. The main export market for this type of pepper is mainly the USA, where it is used almost exclusively in ground form.
The black peppercorns have a hot, dry and spicy taste with notes of fresh wood and a resinous background. Lampong black pepper is lighter and smaller than ordinary pepper varieties. They are therefore suitable for use in pepper mills with both metal and ceramic mechanisms. Whether whole, crushed or ground, they enhance dishes with a pleasant spiciness and add a round and deep flavour.
- Lampong black pepper is used not only to flavour dark meats such as beef and lamb, but also fish
- Originally from Indonesia, Lampong region in South Sumatra
Also known as grapefruit pepper
Grapefruit Highland pepper is one of the rarest spices in the world. It grows wild in remote areas in the foothills of the Himalayas and its harvesting is an arduous manual task undertaken by small farming cooperatives.
As the name Grapefruit Pepper suggests, its aroma on first taste contains the unique flavours of grapefruit, lime, lemon balm and pomelo mixed with a mild spiciness and subtle bitter notes. The flavour of this pepper goes wonderfully with fish, seafood and poultry, but also in sweet dishes for desserts, pastries, cakes or sweet fruits.
For a perfect release of the aroma, we always recommend that the pepper is freshly ground in a grinder or crushed in a mortar just before use. Only add this highland pepper to food at the end of cooking so that the flavour is not lost by the heat.
If you want to give this pepper a kick, you can combine it with Malabar or Tellicherry black pepper or with chilli, with which it is very compatible in taste.
It is not really a pepper, it belongs to the citrus family, which explains its pungent citrus aroma and fresh taste of grapefruit. This pepper is a close relative of Sichuan pepper from China and Sancho pepper from Japan. All three species, together with Timut pepper, belong to the group of small Asian citrus fruits.
- Originally from Nepal
- It is not the fruit of the pepper tree (zanthoxylum alatum)
The fruits of cubeb pepper are small green berries which, like black pepper, are dried in the sun after harvesting until the skin turns black. However, unlike black pepper, cubeb pepper has a small stalk by which it is easily recognisable. Compared to regular pepper, cubeb pepper is not as hot because it does not contain piperine, which is responsible for the typical taste of black pepper. Its taste is slightly spicy and bitter, slightly hot with citrus notes and a pleasantly warm camphor aroma with a slight eucalyptus wood flavour.
It is used in marinades, broths or soups or for mulled wine. In addition to cooking, cubeb pepper can be combined with other types of pepper, such as Malabar or long pepper. The combination then achieves a delicious mix of classic hot peppery pungency mellowed and complemented by lemon and camphor freshness. Kubeb pepper is great not only on meat, but also with cheese and sweet foods such as ice cream or sorbets. Because its flavour is similar to allspice and nutmeg, you can use its fresh aroma to enhance gingerbread and other confectionery products.
In Europe, cubeb pepper is relatively unknown, even though it was imported as early as the 16th century. At that time, it was a popular substitute for the more expensive black pepper. In 1640, however, the King of Portugal banned the import of cubeb pepper, preferring to import black pepper from India in order to please his Indian trading partners. For this reason, the pepper was almost forgotten and only recently has it been rediscovered by master chefs and is enjoying a renaissance.
- Originally from Malaysia, Indonesia
- It is not the fruit of the pepper tree (piper cubeba)
Sichuan pepper originates from China, it is one of the oldest Chinese spices. It’s not real pepper, but the capsules of a shrub called yellow peppercorn. It is mainly used in Chinese, Indian and Japanese cuisine.
It is a highly aromatic spice. Sichuan pepper is hot in a completely different way than chilli or traditional pepper. It is excellent as a pepper substitute because it has a peppery flavour but does not have a peppery pungency. In China, roasted crushed Sichuan peppercorns are used to spice green tea.
It has a hot peppery flavour but not as hot as black pepper, and a strong earthy and citrusy aroma.
- It is most commonly used on stews, steaks, roast duck, chicken, fish and seafood
- It is used in soups, potato, vegetable and mushroom dishes, rice, legumes, tofu and in cooking fruit
- Originally from China
- It is not the fruit of the pepper tree (zanthoxylum armatum)
Pink pepper, sometimes called red pepper, is not a true pepper, but the fruit of the pepper tree. The red berries are crisp and rather aromatic, intensely lemony, with aromas of grapefruit and lemon balm, a slight spiciness and bitterness.
The pepper tree is one of the species of pepper tree, a tree of the kidney family. It can be up to 15 m tall. It is native to the Peruvian Andes, from where it has spread to dry subtropics around the world.
- It is used for steaks, grilled meats, burgers, fish and seafood, poultry and game
- Used in dressings, sauces, pasta, vegetable and egg dishes, it is also used in desserts and beverages
- Used as a decorative seasoning in meat and some vegetable dishes
- Originally from Brazil
- It is not the fruit of the pepper tree (euonymus phellomanus)
The list may expand over time, but for now that’s all.
If you feel that I have forgotten any pepper let me know in the discussion.