Black pepper, it's a spice that you use in your kitchen everyday but one you might not know a lot about. This week we thought it might be fun to put the spotlight on pepper, once used as currency and a measure of a man's wealth, pepper has a history that dates back as early as 1000BC!
This article was written by Jessie Bodor, to follow her story you can find her on instagram.
Image by Ariana Ruth.
A flowering climber, black pepper (Piper nigrum L.) is cultivated for its fruit, which when dried is used as a spice in all manner of cooking. The dried fruit is known as peppercorn and has been a luxury spice in many cultures since the Roman Empire. Pepper today accounts for a quarter of the trade globally. Commercially grown in equatorial countries, plantations are found in Asia, Brazil as well as India and Indonesia who cultivate half the world’s commercial pepper.
Pepper is native to southeastern India, Kerala and was traded globally from there for many centuries. Ancient Greek and Roman texts reference black pepper as early as 1000BC southern Arabian traders controlled trade and spice routes running East to West. It was through the Persian Gulf to Arabia that pepper, cinnamon, incense and oils moved under this huge monopoly.
In ancient Greece, pepper was as a currency and a sacred offering, as well as a seasoning. Pepper was used to both honour the gods and to pay taxes and ransoms.
By medieval times the middle leg of pepper trade routes was still firmly controlled by Muslim traders, while Italian cities like Venice and Genoa, held a monopoly on shipping lines once the spice reached the Mediterranean. Pepper was costly to ship, especially after it had already spent thousands of miles on the Silk Road, but it was so sought after that Italian traders controlled the high prices easily. Pepper therefore obtained luxury status throughout medieval Europe, triggering a generalised fascination with spices and their exotic origins. A man’s wealth was often measured by his pepper store in the Middle Ages.
Well established trade routes popularised pepper, at one point it accounted for seventy per cent of the international spice trade. With availability, its value dropped, and the lower classes could finally access the spice. It’s assimilated into various cultures, being combined with regions’ herbs and spices. India developed garam masala, Morocco now has ras el hanout, quatre épices in France as well as the many jerk and Cajun blends throughout the Americas.
Peppercorns are highly beneficial provided they are freshly cracked and used immediately. Quality as with everything, is important here :)
Pepper’s killer element is Piperine, an active phenolic compound that reduces inflammation, combat arthritis and is know to explode the benefits of turmeric a thousand times. Black pepper joins ginger, cinnamon, cumin and green tea as the only plant-based foods capable of inhibiting ageing and diabetes-caused degeneration.
In stimulating the taste buds, pepper alerts the stomach into increasing its acid secretion which improves digestion. Also a diuretic, pepper works to reduce bloating through its high antioxidant levels. The outer layer of the peppercorn is known to be capable of breaking down fat cells, releasing energy and assisting weight loss/maintenance.
It also stimulates amino-acid transporters in the intestinal lining, regulates enzymes that metabolize nutritional substances, and inhibits the removal of substances from cells. Each of these actions allows nutrients to enter and remain within their target cells for longer-than-normal periods of time.
Pepper is an excellent source of manganese and vitamin K, a very good source of copper and dietary fibre, as well as a good source of iron, chromium, and calcium.
We like black pepper even more because even off our plates it's an effective deterrent to insects. A solution of 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper to one quart of warm water sprayed on plants can be toxic to ants, potato bugs, silverfish and even moths. Sprinkling ground pepper also deters insect paths.
From its nutritional benefits explained above and for its zesty taste, pepper is one of the easiest and most economical additions to anyone’s diet. Black, white, red and green peppercorns can be sourced, their colouring and flavour vary depending on the fruit’s colour and its drying process.
Pepper can be found whole, crushed or ground into a powder. The intensity of flavour and heat reflect the amount of piperine in pepper. Importantly, anything pre-ground has lost much of this benefit and if you consciously purchase whole peppercorns and crush them yourself you can assure that no additives have been included. Crushing peppercorns at the last minute ensures heat, flavour and piperine are at their peak.
Ideally peppercorns are stored in a glass container in a dry, cool and dark place. Stored properly, whole peppercorns will keep for a long time. Peppercorns can be frozen to increase flavour and doing so may raise the level of piperine.
Cooking with Pepper
Pepper is so versatile, it can be added to fresh vegetable juices as well as most cooked and raw foods. A lovely snack is homemade popcorn drizzled with butter and sprinkled with good quality salt and freshly ground black pepper.
For the best burst of flavour add pepper at the end of the cooking process, as it loses its flavour and aroma if cooked for too long so adding towards the end will help preserve its flavour.
Extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt and freshly cracked black pepper is a simple and easy dressing that is always a crowd pleaser.