Exploring Black Pepper: The "Other" Seasoning We Can't Do Without
The disparity between a restaurant’s price and food quality rises in direct proportion to the size of the pepper mill.— Bryan Q. Miller (American television and comic writer)
Would You Like Some Freshly Ground Pepper With That?
Every day, thousands of waitpersons in thousands of restaurants ask that question. Pepper mills near the size of the Seattle Space Needle hover expectantly over dinner plates, soups, and salads, anxious to adorn our "almost perfect meal" with a light shower of flavorful black dots.
Today, this daily ritual of pepper presentation is routine, perfunctory, and inexpensive. No seasoning, other than salt, is more ubiquitous.
But don't confuse "black pepper" with vegetables that also have "pepper" in their names. Bell peppers, chili peppers, cayenne peppers—all of these provide a peppery "bite," but they are not related to the black pepper in the tall slender grinders.
Black pepper is actually the dried fruit of a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae. To produce black pepper, the green berries are picked and dried in the sun until they shrivel and turn black.
But It's Nothing to Sneeze At
Today, pound for pound, black pepper is one of the least expensive spices, one of the most popular, and certainly one of the most plentiful in production. According to the United States Department of Commerce, in 2013 the U.S. imported 70,000 metric tons of black pepper.
Why Is Black Pepper Such a Big Deal?
The pepper vine (Piper nigrum), native to Kerala, a province in southwest India, has been prized since ancient times and was once one of the most valuable substances on Earth. Not only could its sharpness enliven otherwise bland foods, it could disguise the flavor of foods that were, let's say, somewhat less than fresh (a big consideration in times when refrigeration did not exist).
However, black pepper was far more than a seasoning. It was used as a currency (along with gold) to pay tolls, taxes, and ransoms. It was a sacred offering to the Greek gods
The quest to discover new paths to these “riches of the Orient” led to exploration by Portuguese sailors and the Spanish monarchy. It was due to these travels that many new lands were discovered and major merchant cities were established in Europe and the Middle East.
A Timeline of the Pepper Trade
- 1000 B.C. – Arabian traders enjoyed a huge monopoly in the spice business. To protect their valuable routes, they created stories of dragons guarding the pepper groves.
- 40 A.D. – The Romans had a thriving trade in pepper, carried by July monsoon winds from the southwestern coast of India to Alexandria. (Apparently, they were not afraid of dragons.)
- 476 A.D. – With the fall of the Roman Empire, other groups began to take over the spice trade. Under the unifying influence of Islam, Arabs once again organized and became dominant in the trade of pepper.
- 10th Century A.D. – By this time pepper had become important in Europe. It is reported that English King Ethelred II (978-1016) required 10 pounds of pepper from German spice traders as payment for doing business in London.
- 15th Century A.D. – By the end of this century, spice merchants from Alexandria were bringing pepper to Venice, over 400 tons every year. Thus Venice became the distribution center for pepper in Europe, and they marked up the price about 40 percent! This Venetian price-gouging was enough to spur the rest of Europe into exploration. And so began the age of Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Sir Francis Drake, and other explorers.
- 1500 to 1600 A.D. – de Gama was the first person to reach India by sailing around Africa. The Portuguese controlled the spice trade, importing about 2 million kilograms of pepper each year. But this dominance came at a considerable price. It is estimated that up to 30 percent of Portuguese trading vessels were lost en route.
- 17th Century – The Dutch established colonies in Bantam, Ceylon, Java, Lompong, and Malabar and thus became dominant players in the spice trade.
The Black Pepper Market in the 21st Century
Black pepper is still by monetary value, the most widely traded spice in the world, accounting for 20 percent of all spice imports. Although native to southwestern Indian, the plant is cultivated in other tropical regions. Vietnam is now the largest producer and exporter, contributing about 34 percent of the black pepper sold each year. Other major producers include India (20%), Brazil (13%), Indonesia (9%), Malaysia (8%), Sri Lanka (6%), China (6%), and Thailand (4%).
Appetizers and Snacks
- Goat cheese crostini with blueberry balsamic black pepper jam
- Brown sugar and black pepper bacon
- Black pepper chicken salad
- Black pepper biscuits
- Black pepper parmesan beer bread
- Pasta with pepper and Pecorino Romano cheese
- Black pepper shrimp
Goat Cheese Crostini With Blueberry Balsamic Black Pepper Jam
I have so many recipes to share with you. Some are my own creations, and some are links to other creative cooks. I have organized them by category:
- 1 small baguette (8 ounces), cut on the diagonal into 24 slices
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 5 ounces goat cheese (1 small log)
- 1/2 cup Blueberry Balsamic Black Pepper Jam
- Heat broiler. Brush both sides of baguette slices with oil; place on a rimmed baking sheet. Broil until golden, 1 to 2 minutes per side; set toasts aside.
- Dividing evenly, spread each toast with goat cheese, and top with jam.
Brown Sugar and Black Pepper Bacon
Is everything better with bacon? Well, this recipe makes bacon itself even better. Bacon is glazed with smokey sweet brown sugar with a little bite from the black pepper. Sweet, savory, smokey, and delicious. This makes a great garnish or snack.
Black Pepper Chicken Salad
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- olive oil
- fresh ground black pepper
- coarse Kosher salt
- 1/2 cup smoked almonds, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup celery, diced
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- 1 tsp. fresh rosemary, minced
- 2 tablespoons fresh chives, minced
- 1/3 cup mayonnaise, (I used non-fat)
- 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
- Prepare your grill/coals for grilling over medium-high heat. Pat chicken breasts dry with a paper towel. Brush chicken breasts with olive oil. Sprinkle the chicken breasts with ground black pepper, to taste. Sprinkle the chicken breasts lightly with kosher salt, to taste.
- When coals are ready, place chicken breasts on the grill over the hot coals and cook, turning every 3-4 minutes and cooking for approximately 15-20 minutes or until juices run clear. Then take the chicken off the grill onto a clean plate and let it rest for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, cut the chicken into bite-size pieces.
Combine all ingredients and chopped chicken in mixing bowl. Eat as a salad on top of mixed greens or as a chicken salad sandwich filling.
This is such a versatile recipe. Here are a few suggestions on how to adapt it to what you have on hand. Add or substitute:
- Use fresh minced tarragon in place of the rosemary
- Add sliced seedless grapes, or
- Diced apple, or
- Chopped fresh pitted cherries
- Pumpkin seeds
- Crumbled bacon
- Shredded Cheddar cheese
- Shredded Swiss cheese
Black Pepper Biscuits
This recipe is adapted from one prepared by Bobby Flay on the Food Network.
- 4 cups all-purpose flour plus more
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled butter, cubed
- 2 cups half and half plus more for brushing
- 2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Whisk 4 cups flour and next 3 ingredients in a large bowl. Add butter; blend with your fingers until pea-size pieces form. Add half and half; stir until dough forms, adding more milk by tablespoonfuls if dry. Transfer to a lightly floured surface; roll to 3/4" thickness. Using a biscuit cutter, cut into rounds. Repeat until all dough is used.
- Transfer biscuits to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Brush tops with half and half, sprinkle with black pepper and transfer to oven. Bake until golden brown, 25-30 minutes. Serve warm
Black Pepper Parmesan Beer Bread
This black pepper bread is the easiest bread recipe you will ever make. There's no yeast, no kneading, no waiting for the dough to rise. Just dump all of the ingredients into a bowl, stir, pour into a prepared pan and bake for one hour. Ta da!
Pasta With Pepper and Pecorino Romano Cheese
- 1 pound spaghetti or other dried pasta of your choice
- 1 3/4 cups Pecorino Romano cheese, finely shredded
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.
- Return pasta and cooking water to the pot and place over low heat. Add remaining ingredients and stir until cheese and butter have melted and formed a creamy sauce, about 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning and serve with additional cheese if desired.
Black Pepper Shrimp
This is not your typical sauteed shrimp. Asian flavors of oyster sauce and rice wine meld with black pepper and garlic to create an umami-rich sauce in less than 20 minutes. You will want to make steamed rice, noodles, or some crusty french bread so that not one drop of that amazing black pepper shrimp and sauce goes to waste.
© 2015 Linda Lum