The most traded spices in the world are peppercorns, both in monetary value and time, having been traded for thousands of years.
These days, we have access to an awe-inspiring array of peppercorns, with variations in colours, shapes and flavours. In fact, some of the peppercorns available to us are not true peppercorns, but the berries of unrelated plants.
True peppercorns are tiny little fruits, known as drupes, which grow in clusters on a vine called Piper Nigrum of the Piperaceae family. The majority of peppercorn cultivation takes place in Asia, particularly India and Vietnam. The vines need support to grow, which can be provided via living trees, bamboo frames or wooden posts.
Black, white and green peppercorns are all from the Piper Nigrum plant, the variations being the result of harvesting at various stages of ripening.
Black peppercorns are left on the vine to fully mature, then are picked and dried in the sun or blanched before drying. They have a strong spicy flavour due to the presence of the chemical piperine and varying amounts of essential oil.
White peppercorns are the seeds of black peppercorns, soaked to remove the dark coloured casings before drying. The resulting flavour is hotter and more pungent than black peppercorns, with a slightly fermented odour.
Green peppercorns are harvested whilst young then preserved or dried, hence their milder flavour.
Some peppercorns are named after the places from which they are exported or the regions where they are cultivated. Examples are:
Lampong Pepper – an Indonesian black peppercorn from the Lampong region of Sumatra. These peppercorns are pungent, fruity and smoky.
Tellicherry Pepper – From the Malabar coast in Kerala, Southwest India, these peppercorns are grown near the port of Thalassery, which is also known as Tellicherry. Considered to be the finest of Indian peppercorns, they have a complex rich fruity flavour and mild pungency.
Muntok Pepper –The name given to white peppercorns cultivated in the hills surrounding Muntok on the Indonesian island of Bangkla. Soaked in natural spring water for seven days, they are then separated from their casings before being left in the sun to dry and bleach to a creamy colour.
Exotic peppercorns have established a presence in adventurous cuisine and as table condiments. These more unfamiliar peppercorns are not all true peppercorns from the Piperaceae family, some are from other species of plants.
Cubeb Pepper – Piper Cubeba is also known as ‘tailed pepper’ due to the berries being dried with their stalks attached. Cultivated mainly in Sumatra and Java (Java Pepper), they have a pungent flavour of pepper and allspice with a camphorous aroma. Historically they were used to ward off spirits and demons, as an aphrodisiac and an aid to fertility. Nowadays they are believed to have wide-ranging medicinal properties, partly due to their antiseptic properties. As such, they are considered to be beneficial to oral health, throat and respiratory conditions, amongst others. Cubeb pepper is also used in cigarettes, gin and vodka and was a recent addition to a range of Japanese anti-aging products.
Grains of Paradise – Having many alternative names including Guinea Grains, Alligator Pepper and African Pepper, these seeds do resemble peppercorns. They actually belong to the ginger family and are the fruits of a rhizome, not a vine. Mainly cultivated in Ghana, the grains are used throughout Africa as an everyday seasoning. They have a place in African folklore medicine and are even believed to assist with the cardio-vascular health of wild lowland gorillas, being an integral part of their natural diet. Their complex flavour of pepper, cardamom, ginger, cloves and lemon with accompanying delightful aroma has assured them a place in international cuisine and pepper connoisseurs spice mills.
Long Pepper – Piper longum is native to India but its close relative Piper retrofractum is native to Java. Both varieties have a hot and sweet flavour, being more pungent than ordinary black pepper. So-called due to their slender elongated shape, they resemble catkins in appearance, having tiny fruits embedded in a flower spike. In India, they are mainly crushed and used in spicy vegetable pickles. They also feature in the cuisines of Malaysia and Indonesia. Historically introduced to North and East Africa by Arab traders, they are a regular ingredient in the spice blends of Morocco and Ethiopia. In the West, their peppery flavour works well in cheese dishes, particularly fondues.
Sichuan Pepper – Unrelated to the pepper family, these are the berries of a prickly ash tree, native to the Sichuan province of southwest China. The berries split open when ripe and look like tiny versions of the buds of beech trees. It is the pinkish outer husk that has all the flavour and aroma, not the black seed within. When chewed they cause a numbing sensation on the tongue, known as ‘ma’ in Chinese which has a similar meaning to pins and needles. Sichuan pepper is very aromatic, with a scent of anise and a sweet fresh citrus flavour. It is an essential component in the blend of Chinese Five Spice and is also used on meats, in stir-fries and in Sichuan cakes and biscuits.
Allspice – A member of the myrtle family, the berries are called peppers in many languages, eg. Jamaica Pepper, due to their resemblance to peppercorns. Allspice berries are the dried fruit of the Pimenta dioica tree, a bushy tree native to the Caribbean, Central America and Southern Mexico. They are picked whilst unripe and dried in the sun. Allspice is used in many Mexican dishes such as mole and in most European cuisines, particularly in England in pickles, chutneys and cakes. In the Caribbean it is considered to be the most important spice and is an essential ingredient in Jerk seasoning, along with its leaves. It has an aroma similar to cloves, with flavours of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and black pepper.
Pink Peppercorns – Not peppercorns at all, but the berries of the shrub Schinus terebinthifolius, the Mexican pepper tree and Schinus molle, the Peruvian pepper tree. Although mild and sweet, they are quite pungent but not peppery. Once crushed, they are very fruity and sweet with spiciness and flavours of juniper, aniseed and pine. They are mostly used for their attractive appearance and are often mixed with other peppercorns in peppermills. They were hugely popular in the era of nouvelle cuisine until the United States banned the importation of the berries as they were believed to cause respiratory and intestinal problems. This ban has since been revoked following extensive analysis. Pink peppercorns enhance light dishes such as fish, poultry and vegetables. They are also a great addition to sweet jellies, syrups, biscuits and cakes.
Here at Seasoned Pioneers, in addition to offering the above products, our range also includes the following:
Vietnamese Peppercorns – One of the world’s largest producers, peppercorns from Vietnam are vibrant with strong spicy tobacco notes.
Wynad Peppercorns – cultivated in the Wynad district of Kerala, India, these peppercorns have a warming heat with a full, rounded flavour.
Cracked Black Pepper – conveniently coarsely crushed ready for use in sauces, rubs, on peppered steaks and for general seasoning.
Ground Black Pepper – highly versatile, for use in everything with a subtle, warm & complex flavour.
Lemon Pepper Mix – a traditionally dry roasted blend of black peppercorns, garlic and coriander mixed with lemon powder, thyme and onion powder.
Mixed Peppercorns – an attractive and vibrant mix of pepper flavours and heat, perfect for the pepper mill. A blend of white peppercorns, black peppercorns, allspice, pink peppercorns and green peppercorns.
Exotic Mixed Peppercorns – The ultimate gourmet mill blend for pepper connoisseurs. A blend of white peppercorns, black peppercorns, grains of paradise, allspice, cubeb pepper, pink peppercorns, green peppercorns and Sichuan pepper.
Gourmet Peppercorns Selection – An inspirational gift box containing Tellicherry black peppercorns, exotic mixed peppercorns, pink peppercorns, grains of paradise and Sichuan pepper.
We hope that the above information clarifies the dazzling array of peppercorns and accompanying spices that we are fortunate to have at our disposal.
Rejoice in using and experimenting with these fabulous flavourful little berries!
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