Earthly Delights: Priceless Pepper
Botanical name: Piper nigrum
P epper is the small berry of a tropical flowering vine native to India. The berries are borne on spikes, and on average sixteen to twenty thousand berries make up one kilogram. Black peppercorns are berries picked green and unripe and dried in the sun, the blackening caused by enzymes. Green peppercorns are also harvested unripe and pickled in vinegar or brine to preserve their colour. White peppercorns are ripe berries, their red skins washed off to reveal the pale core, and bleached in the sun. Red peppercorns are actually from a Brazilian tree and are unrelated to Indian pepper.
The Sanskrit word pippali is the root of the word pepper and means berry and also ‘long pepper’ (P. longum) which was originally the most highly regarded pepper spice.
For over three thousand years pepper has been the world’s most important spice and was possibly the earliest culinary spice in use. It was first cultivated around 1000 B.C. and a thousand years later was established by Indian immigrants in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Pepper was the supreme spice of the classical world, well known by the Greeks by the 5th century B.C. but used less in cooking than as a medicine in the official pharmacopoeia.
Indian pepper was so important to the Romans that it was numbered, along with Chinese silk, African ivory, German amber, and Arabian incense, as one of the five ‘essential luxuries’. In 408 A.D. Alaric, king of the Visigoths, demanded one thousand five hundred kilograms of pepper as part of the ransom for the city of Rome.
Medieval Europe, separated from the East by great distances and dangerous over-land journeys, considered pepper to be so precious that it was valued on a par with gold. A mans wealth was measured not by the land he owned but by the stocks of pepper in his pantry. The wealthy kept large stores of pepper in their houses, and made this fact well-known as a guarantee of solvency. So valuable was the peppercorn, that it was used as payment instead of coins and in fact represented a more stable form of currency since there was no regulation of the content of precious metals forged into coins and every sovereignty and even many cities struck their own coins. (There was also the common habit of scrapping off a bit of the coin as it passed from hand to hand).
Valuable, small, easily transportable, and durable, the desire for readier access pepper (and other spices) launched one of the most dramatic series of events in recorded European history. The search for a sea route to India was on and Columbus, in his quest for a western route, landed on the shores of America, and assumed it was India! In 1498 Vasco da Gama was the first European to reach India by ship, thus opening the ocean route between Europe and Asia
Next to water and salt, pepper is the third most common food additive. Whole peppercorns hold their flavour and volatile oils better than ground pepper, and since the aromatic qualities of pepper are fleeting and pre-ground pepper turns bitter in storage, freshly ground pepper is a must. Pepper enhances the flavour of nearly all dishes, and only needs to be used sparingly. Lacking the distinctive personalities of most other spices pepper blends easily with meat, fish, and vegetables, its heat gently teasing the taste buds!
Hot and pungent, pepper is a digestive stimulant, enhancing the taste of food by stimulating the taste buds and increasing the secretion of digestive juices in such a way that an alert is sent to the stomach to begin the secretion of hydrochloric acid, essential for good stomach digestion. Black pepper can be safely used as a spice for people who are on a bland diet or are otherwise forbidden to eat chillies.
Being a diaphoretic, black pepper promotes sweating which cools the body by evaporation, making peppery foods popular in warm climates.
Black pepper is considered an important healing spice in ayurveda. Along with long pepper and ginger, it forms the herbal preparation ‘Trikatu’, an essential ingredient in many ayurvedic formulations. It has cleansing and antioxidant properties, and is a bio-availability enhancer in that it helps in the transport of the benefits of other herbs within the body.
Black pepper increases the bio-availability of potent cancer-fighter curcumin (the active polyphenol found in turmeric) by 1,000 times, which means that when combined together, black pepper and turmeric offer a powerful protection against cancer. The piperine in black pepper also increases absorption of several other nutrients, including selenium, vitamin B, and beta-carotene.
Research by the Nicotine Research Laboratory of the V.C Medical Centre found that cigarette replacement devices that emitted black pepper vapour reduced the smokers’ craving for cigarettes and alleviated anxiety.
Be aware: Overuse of pepper can provoke chronic hyper-secretion followed by a burning sensation in the stomach.
Practical purposes of Pepper
A pest deterrent. Pepper contains piperine which is extremely toxic to a number of household and agricultural pests like flies, ants, moths, silverfish and potato bugs. Make a solution of one-half teaspoon in one litre of warm water and spray this on plants to protect them. Alternatively sprinkle ground pepper in areas that insects frequent.
A pinch of pepper mixed with melted ghee and applied externally relieves dermatitis and hives.
Black pepper tea is a popular Ayurvedic remedy for coughs and sore throats. Simply add 1 tspn of freshly ground black pepper to 2 cups of hot water and let it steep, covered, for 5 minutes. If desired, add lemon and/or honey to taste.
Cool summer cocktail recipe: Gin and tonic with black pepper tincture.
Many gins feature black pepper as an ingredient, alongside key botanicals such as juniper and citrus fruit. Adding a drop of black pepper tincture (prepare 2 weeks in advance) brings the warmth of the spice to the fore.
A little more than a drop of black pepper tincture (see below)
Indian tonic water
A squeeze of lime
1 fresh bay leaf
For the tincture (makes 100ml; keeps for a long time)
6g black peppercorns
1 First make the tincture. Combine the peppercorns and vodka in a jar and leave to infuse for two weeks, then strain into another clean jar.
2 Fill a highball glass with ice, add the gin, tincture and top with tonic water. Garnish with a squeeze of lime. Drop in a fresh bay leaf for a sweet aroma. Stir and drink.
Other uses for the tincture- Add a small amount to your mouthwash for its antibacterial effects and its ability to protect against tooth decay. It also makes a lovely liniment for achy muscles mixed with some rosemary infused oil and rubbed vigorously over the body.
Roasted strawberries and pepper
500 g strawberries, stems removed
3 tablespoons organic sugar
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Rinse the strawberries in cool water, place in a strainer or colander, and shake off most of the water. Slice the strawberries about 1cm thick, place them in a large bowl, and sprinkle them with the sugar. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours.
Preheat the oven to 375°F/190 C. Toss the strawberries with the black pepper, add the balsamic vinegar, and put the strawberries and all of their juices into a large sauté pan or a large ovenproof dish. Roast for 8 to 10 minutes, until the juices are bubbling and the strawberries are hot but not mushy. Divide among individual dishes and serve immediately with a dollop of mascarpone.
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