Pepper

Pepper, the prized spice of the ancient world, is a cook’s best friend during the winter.



Photos by Laura Petrilla

(page 1 of 2)

Packed with bracing heat and robust flavor, black pepper is the world’s most popular spice. In frigid January, it brings out the best in winter roasts, stews and braises, and delivers tingling warmth that’s literally straight from the tropics: The Piper nigrum plant thrives only within about 15 degrees of the equator.

Native to Malabar on the southern Indian coast, where hot weather and monsoon rains encourage this perennial vine to climb upward of a hundred feet, black peppercorns have been treasured for millennia. As early as 950 B.C., they were a cornerstone of the Arab spice monopoly, which successfully kept its trade routes secret and profited from trade with ancient Rome.

Pepper was so valuable that 3,000 pounds of it, along with gold and silver, were paid to invading Visigoths as bounty for sparing the city of Rome in A.D. 408. During medieval times in Europe, pepper was akin to coins and could be used to pay rent, purchase livestock or substantiate a wedding dowry. The struggle over the East Indies and its valuable spices, including pepper, kicked off after the Portuguese reached India by sea in 1498.

As the Dutch, Spanish and British powers also battled for control, trade routes opened, and black pepper became more widely available—eventually arriving on the shores of the New World. Yankee ingenuity entered the picture in the late 1700s as New England colonists such as Elihu Yale, who established Yale University with the fortune he amassed in the pepper trade, learned to trade directly with partners in Southeast Asia.

peppered pecans
Peppered Pecans recipe.

Black pepper’s perennial popularity is not—as some storytellers would have it—because it was necessary to cover the flavor of spoiled meat in pre-refrigeration days. It was used as a preservative, certainly, but its rich, mouth-watering aroma and spicy, savory taste have always been the source of its popularity. Our habit of keeping a pepper grinder on the table is relatively recent, dating only a few centuries back, but recipes that depend on it have long been a staple in cuisines around the world. Its affinity for all kinds of ingredients can surprise: In Greece, it’s traditional to coat sweet dried figs with freshly cracked pepper, while in the tropics it adds a layer of spice to fresh pineapple. Essential for sharpening creamy flavors in dishes like Thai corn chowder or spaghetti carbonara, it’s also key to the searing heat of Malaysian-style salt-and-pepper shrimp or crab.

There is virtually no limit to the ways this intense spice can be relished. If freshly ground black pepper feels old hat, add green or white peppercorns to your cooking repertoire—and remember that the pepper grinder is just the place to turn for warmth to see you through winter.

Much of the world’s supply of black pepper is still grown on family farms in India and Malaysia where home-garden plots may yield only as much as a one or two pounds of pepper per year. Large-scale exporters buy the crop and sell much of it to the U.S., the world’s largest consumer of the spice.

The plant, a climbing vine that’s often trained over such “tutor trees” as mango, white teak or coffee, yields berries that grow in long, narrow hanging clusters and somewhat resemble very small grapes. Depending on when and how the peppercorn berries are picked and processed, the resulting spice will be one of the three most common varieties: black, green or white.

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Pittsburgh's Top 10 Things to Do in March

Pittsburgh's Top 10 Things to Do in March

Your 10 best bets for this month.
Jamie Dixon: Winning His Way

Jamie Dixon: Winning His Way

Peers, players, and regular observers know him to be one of the best coaches — and people — in college basketball.
15 Buzzworthy Pittsburgh Salons

15 Buzzworthy Pittsburgh Salons

From east to west — and north and south — these are the region’s salons and services that make our cut. Having a good hair day doesn’t have to be so difficult after all.
Home of the Year: 2015

Home of the Year: 2015

This year’s selections include a Richland Township house built to appreciate its 160-acre lot and Shadyside garage that was renovated into a stunning, modern dream home.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

14 Life-Changing Home Products for 2015

14 Life-Changing Home Products for 2015

Home expert Boyce Thompson previews this year's Duquesne Light Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show and speculates on which products will become fully integrated into our homes soon.
How Big a Salary Do You Need to Own a Home In Pittsburgh?

How Big a Salary Do You Need to Own a Home In Pittsburgh?

Pittsburgh tops nationwide list for home affordability.
Why the Browns Could Take a Few Social Media Tips from the Penguins

Why the Browns Could Take a Few Social Media Tips from the Penguins

It seems the 'Burgh's boys of winter are popping up everywhere on the Internet.
Table for 36, Please: Penguins Invade D.C. Restaurant

Table for 36, Please: Penguins Invade D.C. Restaurant

One item on the menu got a lot of attention.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Pittsburgh's Top 10 Things to Do in March

Pittsburgh's Top 10 Things to Do in March

Your 10 best bets for this month.
Jamie Dixon: Winning His Way

Jamie Dixon: Winning His Way

Peers, players, and regular observers know him to be one of the best coaches — and people — in college basketball.
15 Buzzworthy Pittsburgh Salons

15 Buzzworthy Pittsburgh Salons

From east to west — and north and south — these are the region’s salons and services that make our cut. Having a good hair day doesn’t have to be so difficult after all.
Home of the Year: 2015

Home of the Year: 2015

This year’s selections include a Richland Township house built to appreciate its 160-acre lot and Shadyside garage that was renovated into a stunning, modern dream home.
Preserving August Wilson's Voice

Preserving August Wilson's Voice

Todd Kreidler, who helped to conceive the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright’s final written work, returns to Pittsburgh to direct that play, continuing his mission to keep the master’s words alive.
Review: Tender Bar + Kitchen

Review: Tender Bar + Kitchen

Lawrenceville hot spot Tender, once favored primarily for its libations, now is known as well for its culinary offerings.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit Module