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

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Our exclusive list of the region's 584 leading physicians across 76 specialities.
Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Follow eight physicians over two days as they perform surgeries, consult on end-of-life care, treat accident victims, discuss hospital programs –– and then reset and do it all over again.
The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

Chef Dennis Marron designs a menu of modern-American fare at The Commoner in the downstairs space of Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh.
What Inspires Ray Gastil's Careful Plan for Pittsburgh's Future

What Inspires Ray Gastil's Careful Plan for Pittsburgh's Future

How will the city’s new planning director stoke Pittsburgh’s next generation of developments?
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Two Pittsburgh Restaurants Closing; Kings Leaving the Family

Two Pittsburgh Restaurants Closing; Kings Leaving the Family

One of the eateries has been a staple in Bloomfield for more than a half-century.
Who's Carson? Why Does He Have His Own Street?

Who's Carson? Why Does He Have His Own Street?

Some of the names synonymous with Pittsburgh have surprising histories behind them.
Aviary Determined to Have Dwindling Condors Leave the Nest

Aviary Determined to Have Dwindling Condors Leave the Nest

The National aAviary is working to send ’Burgh-born birds back to their natural habitats to boost endangered populations.
Are You Missing Out? Why More People Love Life in Butler County

Are You Missing Out? Why More People Love Life in Butler County

Cranberry Township is crammed, but people still are flocking north.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Our exclusive list of the region's 584 leading physicians across 76 specialities.
Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Follow eight physicians over two days as they perform surgeries, consult on end-of-life care, treat accident victims, discuss hospital programs –– and then reset and do it all over again.
The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

Chef Dennis Marron designs a menu of modern-American fare at The Commoner in the downstairs space of Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh.
What Inspires Ray Gastil's Careful Plan for Pittsburgh's Future

What Inspires Ray Gastil's Careful Plan for Pittsburgh's Future

How will the city’s new planning director stoke Pittsburgh’s next generation of developments?
Dare to be Different — PittGirl's Better Ways to Use Social Media

Dare to be Different — PittGirl's Better Ways to Use Social Media

You can use social media to change your life and the lives of those around you in a positive way.
Pittsburgh's Top 10 in April

Pittsburgh's Top 10 in April

The 10 best things to do in April in Pittsburgh.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit Module