Flavor Investigator: Black Pepper

Seated at even the most basic of restaurants in the US and UK is an ionic pair- salt and black pepper.  Black peppercorns are the fruit of Piper nigrum, a member of the Piperaceae family and is native to South India. Today the world’s largest producer of black pepper is India followed by Indonesia and Malaysia. This spice alone accounts for 35% of the world trade in spices. It is no surprise then that black pepper is known as the ‘king of the spices.’ Overall, the characteristic flavour of black peppercorns is spicy, woody, warm, terpy and herbaceous.

A Brief History of Black Pepper

The history of how black pepper came to be a staple on the American table is a rich one.  The use of pepper as a spice dates to at least 2000BCE where it was used in Indian cooking.  Mysteriously, this spice appeared in ancient Egypt where it was stuffed in the nostrils of Ramses the Great (1303-1213BC) when he was mummified. Pepper played a large role in the trading of spices during the time of the Romans. When the Romans were attacked in 410AD they were required to give up gold, silver, silk and three thousand pounds of pepper to the Visigoths in order to prevent the city from being sacked.

Acquiring black pepper led to Portugal, Spain and other European nations to sail the world seeking out new sources of spice.  By the end of the 15th century, over 400 tons of black pepper per year was brought from Alexandria to Venice.  The high price of black pepper remained during the Middle Ages as Italy held the monopoly on the spice. Eventually this led to the Portuguese seeking a new sea route to India. Over time as new sea routes began to become available the price of pepper decline.

Differences Between Peppercorn Varieties

Black pepper is not the only available peppercorn for purchase. Peppercorns can also come in pink, green and white varieties. Pink peppercorns are not considered “true” peppercorns because they come from a different family of fruit, the Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius) or Peruvian pepper tree.  Furthermore, pink peppercorns are members of the cashew family which may cause allergic reactions for people with tree nut allergies. So be on the lookout! Pink peppercorns have a characteristic peppery, woody, aromatic, seedy, ginger and juniper flavor.

Green peppercorns in contrast are unripe black peppercorns. Green peppercorns are typically found to be preserved in brine or vinegar this is because dried green peppercorns do not last long.  The flavour is less pungent and fresher when compared to black peppercorns. Finally, white peppercorns are black peppercorns that have had the black skin removed. White peppercorns have a mild pepper taste and are commonly used in white sauces as their colour does not stand out.

Flavour Compounds Found in Black Peppercorns

Black pepper has a slight spiciness to it and this is a result of piperin. Piperin is the alkaloid responsible for the pungency in peppercorns. When refined it has been found that piperin is one percent as hot as capsaicin, they spicy chemical found in chili peppers. Black peppercorns are not only pungent but aromatic too. Other components found to contribute peppercorn aroma is germacrene, limonene, pinene and alpha-phellandrene. Germacrene is potent, spicy, warm and has a sweet aroma. In contrast limonene is sweet, orange, citrus and terpy.

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