- Basic and Historical Information - "Pepper is arguably the most popular seasoning in the world. It has been an important and precious commodity throughout history, not only flavoring food, but also serving as currency - or being demanded as ransom - in both the East and the West. The ancient Greeks and Romans cooked with it; peppercorns were so esteemed in twelfth-century England that a Guild of Pepperers was founded among London merchants; and Marco Polo was impressed by the large quantity of pepper used in thirteenth-century China. "Peppercorns are the fruits of a perennial vine, Piper nigrum, which is native to India and is now grown commercially in eastern Asia, Borneo, Brazil, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the West Indies. In the wild, vines may reach 20 feet long, but in commercial cultivation they are trained on posts 5 or 6 feet tall to simplify harvesting. The plants are grown for three or four years before they are harvested; once they are established, the vines continue to bear fruits for 15 to 20 years. The berries, which are borne in spikes, turn from green to orange and then red as they mature. To keep them from dropping, they are harvested before they ripen fully. "Black, green, and white peppercorns come from the same plant; the differences are in the maturity of the berries at the time of harvest as well as the technique of processing. All contain various oils and resins and the alkaloid piperine, which gives them their pungency." "BLACK PEPPERCORNS are harvested in the unripe, green state and left to dry for seven to ten days. As they dry, they shrivel and turn dark brown or black. Black peppercorns are quite hard and have the strongest flavor of the three types of P. nigrum berries. Freshly ground black pepper is highly pungent and aromatic, and can be bitingly hot. "GREEN PEPPERCORNS, as their name suggests, are also picked when green, but they are preserved immediately; if they are not, they begin to darken toward the black pepper stage. For years, green peppercorns were commonly preserved in brine; today, they are usually freeze-dried. Although they have a certain tanginess, green peppercorns are less pungent than black or white ones, and they are usually not as hard and are therefore easier to crack or grind. "WHITE PEPPERCORNS are prepared from berries that have been allowed to ripen almost completely on the vines. The harvested berries are soaked in water for a day, after which the outer shell is easily removed, leaving a small gray seed which dries to tannish white. White pepper has a hint of mustiness and is milder in flavor than black pepper, although still quite pungent." From Susan Belsinger and Carolyn Dilles "Peppercorns Around the World" article in "The Herb Companion." Dec. 1992/Jan. 1993, Vol. 5, No. 2. Pg. 42. Posted by Cathy Harned.
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