From seed to plate: the story of black pepper

July 29, 2019 7:02 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Black pepper: it’s the most common of all spices. It even has its own comedy routine: ‘phenomenally successful in the herb and spice arena!’ is how the comedian Michael McIntyre describes it, before going on to impersonate various other, less ‘successful’ spices, frustrated and jealous of pepper (‘what does it have that we don’t?’, they moan). If you like comedy routines about condiments, then check it out here!

Black pepper - why do you use so much of it?

But how has this one spice come to have such prominence in our kitchens? How did it come to hit the big time? What’s it good for and why do we use so much of it? And is there really any difference between standard black pepper and the organic variety?

It’s time to get some answers!

Little black bullets

At Naturally Good Food we sell whole black peppercorns and ground black pepper. The latter is of course made from the former, so we’re going to start with the whole corns.

Most of us don’t actually handle whole peppercorns much. We might occasionally toss them whole into a marinade, poaching water or other recipe, but we usually encounter them safely encased in a pepper grinder. Touching them, however, is an interesting experience. The organic corns we sell at Naturally Good Food are wonderfully fragrant, with a real fruitiness of aroma. They bring a vibrancy to dishes – and a vibrancy you can actually feel, making your fingers tingle as you touch them. (This isn’t just your imagination: black peppercorns have natural antibacterial and anti-coagulation properties. If you have a small cut or thinner area of skin – perhaps around your fingernails – you’ll be able to feel these properties externally.) Why not give it a try, as you refill your pepper grinder one day?

Black pepper: the start of the story

Black pepper might be found on every table in the land nowadays, but it wasn’t always thus. It’s a spice that’s native to tropical regions of the world and didn’t reach this country until trading routes opened in the 1400s. It then enjoyed a meteoric rise to success, relegating previously popular spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, ginger and cloves to the back of the spice cupboard.

Black pepper can be grown – with great care – in all kinds of climates, but it’s still generally harvested in the East and traded to the West, just as it was in the Middle Ages. The corns are the fruit of the piper nigrum plant and each contain a single seed. Planted in moist, rich, warm and well-drained soil, in a humid environment, they grow into tall, climbing vines, with white or cream blossoms in the summer. After a year or so, the vines produce tiny fleshy fruits in long, hanging clusters.

If the fruit is allowed to ripen fully, it turns red, and after drying, white. If picked when still green, however, the fruit turns black after drying. That’s what we sell at Naturally Good Food.

Once ready for harvesting, the berries are picked by hand and sun-dried for several days. They make their way to a processing plant, where they’re cleaned to remove impurities. If they’re destined for ground pepper, they’ll then be passed through rollers. The product, whole or ground, is then packaged and sold to wholesalers. We purchase bulk packs from our wholesalers and generally repack these into smaller sizes for our customers.

Why do we use so much pepper?

Undoubtedly, some people use pepper simply out of habit and don’t really notice the taste. For many of us, the slightly fiery taste has become so much part of our diet that it doesn’t particularly register. Whenever a recipe calls for ‘seasoning’, we may reflexively grind some black pepper into the mix.

But take it away and we’d miss it! To ‘reset’ our taste buds and appreciate what it is we’re grinding over our food, we need to try this spice in isolation. Here’s a suggestion: take some wonderfully juicy, ripe tomatoes. Dress them with oil and then grind over some pepper (nothing else). Eat slowly, really appreciating the taste, and the slight tingle on your tongue, that the pepper adds.

It’s this taste – an enrichment and a release of the flavour of the other ingredients of a meal – that’s helped to make pepper such an important part of our cooking. It perks up dull, bland food and adds a new depth to proper, interesting food as well.

Why should we use it?

If there ever was a good spice to use unthinkingly, however, it would be pepper! It’s not just good for taste, but brings a whole range of health benefits, too.

It’s perhaps best known for being able to clear a blocked-up nose (some people sneeze almost instantly when they sniff black pepper). It’s also famous for helping with digestion, soothing upset stomachs and preventing nausea.

As mentioned above, it’s naturally anti-bacterial and can help blood coagulate. To stop a small wound bleeding, rub in a little pepper (don’t try this with its partner, salt, of course!). Anti-inflammatory too, black pepper is used by some people to alleviate symptoms of arthritis, migraines and sore throats, while others swear by it for help with breathing difficulties like asthma.

In short, black pepper is good for us. In each tiny corn, you’ll find potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and sodium, along with various B vitamins, vitamin E and vitamin K. And that’s something else to think about when we reach for the grinder!

What about organic black pepper?

Is it worth buying organic black pepper? Well, organic black peppercorns will have been grown without the use of petroleum-based fertilisers and pesticides and with due regard for sustainability and environmental protection. That, in itself, seems to us to be a good enough reason to choose organic black pepper. But we think there’s a difference in taste, too.  We handle (and use) our black pepper often enough to be convinced that there’s a depth of flavour and a tingling pungency found in the organic version that’s lacking in the dustier supermarket packets. With our peppercorns, it’s not just a catch-all spiciness we can taste, but a fruitiness too, with an edge of sweet warmth.

What’s great with black pepper?

If possible, we’d actually like to give black pepper a little more prominence on our tables. We’d like to start genuinely appreciating this spice as we use it! So what’s really good with black pepper?

Well, the cook Nigel Slater likes it on strawberries (others suggest grinding it over pineapple). It’s an amazing, yet subtle, addition to the poaching water for trout or salmon (along with some thinly sliced salad vegetables, herbs, salt, vinegar or wine). We’d recommend using it on otherwise-rather-dull greens too, to liven them up. And you simply can’t do better than give it star billing in a world-class steak au poivre.

The really great thing about black pepper is that it never gets old. Grinding it up every day as we do, we’re always using this spice at its freshest and best. Perhaps that – in a kind of virtuous circle – explains why we like it as much as we do!

Shop for the best black pepper

See our organic black peppercorns here and our organic ground black pepper here. Various wonderful and delicious products containing black pepper can be seen here!

Naturally Good Reads v2

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This post was written by Yzanne

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