What would life be without flavor? Utterly dull I should think. It is my opinion that no kitchen in the world should be without a generous selection of fresh herbs and dried spices. My own spice cabinet is overflowing with spicy abundance from all corners of the globe, and while the extensiveness of my collection may incur a little light ribbing from friends and family from time to time, it has never yet been said that my food lacks flavor. Flavor is very important in my kitchen, as there is nothing I hate more then bland, boring, tasteless food. Eating should be enjoyable. It should be something done with pleasure. To me mealtime should be something you look forward to, a time to share good food and good conversation around a table with friends and family. Maybe that’s a bit ‘old world’ of me, but that’s how I was raised. Very rarely in my house growing up was it acceptable for us to eat anywhere but the kitchen table. When mom called for dinner you came and sat at the table, and if you weren’t hungry you usually came and sat down anyway. The t.v. was never on and while some might consider that a hardship I think of it as a blessing. There is nothing more disturbing, more distracting nor nothing kills the mood faster then a t.v. blaring in the background. Meal time to me is something that should be looked forward to with happy and excited anticipation. It shouldn’t be a chore, and it shouldn’t be a solitary activity in which you mindlessly shovel food into your face while sitting in front of the television. How can you truly appreciate what you’re eating when you’re not even paying attention to it? How can you cherish the taste, the texture, the flavor? To me food is always better when you have someone to share it with.
It’s with that passion I have for spice, combined with a request from a reader that I embark on a new series that I hope to make a weekly (or every other week) occurrence. The Spice of Life, will be similar to my Spotlight Food posts, only I’ll be featuring a different spice each week. Detailing for you that particular spices history, medicinal benefit (if any) and culinary uses. For my first post, I thought I’d choose a universally renown yet simple spice, common enough that you can find it for sale in any grocery store to which you venture.
I know, you’re probably thinking black pepper? Bleh! It’s the most common spice available, and in our culture common tends to mean boring. Very often I think black pepper is overlooked. Probably the only time you yourself ever think of using it is as an afterthought, but let me assure you black pepper is the most important spice, in the history of food.
Pepper or peppercorns come from the pepper plant (Piper nigrum) which is a flowering vine in the Piperaceeae family, native to India. Peppercorns are technically considered to be a fruit, and to make what we know as pepper, the berries of the plant are picked and dried (resulting in peppercorns) and then ground into the powder we commonly use. Interestingly Black, Green, and White pepper (like bell peppers) are all the same plant. The difference in color and taste is due to different harvesting times, and drying techniques. Green peppercorns are picked while unripe, black peppercorns are picked when half ripe, and white peppercorns are picked when very ripe and then soaked in brine to remove their dark outer shell. Pink peppercorns on the other hand are from a completely different plant species (Schinus molle)
Pepper has been used in India since at least 2000 BCE, and possibly even earlier. Today India is still the top pepper producer in the world, with it’s Malabar Coast being it’s top producing region, seconded by Indonesia.
Historically pepper was a highly prized trade good, so much so that it was often referred to as ‘Black Gold’ In ancient times it was used not only as a seasoning but as currency, and a sacrificial offering to the gods. It was used to pay rent, taxes, ransoms, and given as a precious gift. It was so cherished not only for if’s flavor but also for it’s ability to mask a food’s lack of freshness. Which was especially important in a time when methods of preserving food were inadequate and inefficient.
Black Pepper believe it or not changed the course of history! It’s importance was the catalyst that started most of the spice trade, leading to the development of many major merchant towns in Europe, The Middle East and across the world. During the Middle Ages the price of pepper was exorbitant, and Italy held a monopoly over the trade, it was because of this that led the Portugese to find a new sea route to India - by sailing around Africa - during the age of discovery, consequently also leading to the Portugese colonial occupation of India as well as the subsequent European discovery and colonization of The Americas. No matter what your opinion of black pepper as a seasoning you have to admit that’s pretty amazing! Interestingly it was once these trade routes opened up, and pepper supplies began flooding Europe that the price of pepper declined. Once an item exclusively for the rich, pepper now began it’s journey to becoming an everyday seasoning, easily available to those of more common means. Today pepper accounts for one-fifth of the worlds spice trade.
Medicinally black pepper has demonstrated antioxidant and antibacterial effects, but mostly it’s known to improve digestion and intestinal health. Black Pepper stimulates the tastebuds in such a way that a message is sent to the stomach to create more hydrochloric acid secretion which is important in improving digestion. When the bodies production of hydrochloric acid is insufficient food may sit in the stomach for a long time creating heartburn or indigestion or pass into the intestines where it could be used by unfriendly gut bacteria to create gas, irritation, diarrhea or constipation. Consumption of black pepper has the ability to reduce or relieve these effects.
Black pepper also promotes sweating, urination and the outer layer of the peppercorn stimulates the breakdown of fat cells in the body.
You can literally use Pepper on almost anything, and you really should. I highly recommend good quality whole peppercorns that you can grind yourself in a pepper mill. Honestly nothing beats the freshness and the flavor, but already ground pepper has it’s time and place as well. The best thing to do with pepper is to add it at the end of cooking, as it loses much of it’s flavor and aroma if cooked for too long. Pepper is great for bringing out the flavor of simply steamed, or sauteed vegetables. It’s a wonderful way of spicing up dips and it’s wonderful in fresh homemade salads, and pasta dishes. I don’t think I’ve ever made a salad dressing without tossing in a bit of fresh cracked black pepper. However as I experiment more and more with my spice collection I have to say I really love the flavor and aroma of white pepper. It’s a bit different then black pepper and if you’ve never tried it before I highly recommend it. Subsequently even though pink peppercorns are not of the same species I do recommend them as well. They lend a beautiful fruity flavor with just a touch of spice that’s incredibley pleasing to the palate, and hard to come by otherwise.
May your life be rich in spice! Happy and health eating to you!
Note - An interesting little fact about Black Pepper, is that black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, placed there as part of the mummification ritual that took place shortly after his death in 1213 BCE.