You can open anyone’s spice cupboard and it’s there. There may not be any cumin or turmeric or cinnamon or Chinese 5-spice powder, but there will definitely be black pepper. It is the most common spice in British cupboards and is even ahead of salt now as salt sales have fallen over the years. It’s on most restaurant tables and in many places the waiter will approach with a giant pepper grinder to spice up your dish.
I love black pepper and I think I have a high tolerance for it, using more of it on my food than most people. Years ago I had a Jaime Oliver recipe that I must have pulled out of a magazine somewhere for tofu in a lentil and pepper sauce. The sauce contained nearly as many pepper corns as lentils – at least that’s what it tasted like – and I adored it. Sadly, I lost the recipe. Unless my husband lost it for me as he doesn’t love black pepper quite as much as I do.
The Latin name of the plant is piper nigrum. There is no botanical relationship at all to the other peppers: chilli peppers or bell peppers, which are from the capsicum family. Rather they were merely named after black pepper, because the hotness and spiciness of hot peppers was deemed similar to it. Black peppercorns are actually the fruit of the black pepper tree. Green peppercorns are said fruit harvested before it is ripe and have a lovely ‘herbal’ taste. They usually sold in brine or pickled and are nice slightly crushed in cream cheese, for example. White pepper is the seed of the peppercorn with the dark outer shell removed.
Black peppercorns originally come from India. In ancient and medieval times it was highly valuable and sometimes even used as currency. In the Middle Ages the merchant cities Genova and Venice had a monopoly on the land routes to Asia and were controlling the spice trade. This encouraged others to get access to India via the sea, including a Western route. Today of course, black pepper is not that hard to come by. Around the world, we consume about 124,000 tons a year of the stuff.
Today, it is probably considered one of the more humble spices, cheap and accessible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not of great value and like most real foods, black pepper is not just tasty, it also has some health benefits. It can induce sweating, relieve flatulence and has diuretic properties, i. e. it makes you wee more.
Black pepper also stimulates the taste buds, which in turn send a message to the stomach to increase stomach acid production. Now why on earth would you want to do that? So many people are taking antacid medication or over-the-counter remedies because they are suffering from acid reflux. I’ve written about that in more detail here, but in short: acid reflux is in most cases a symptom of too little stomach acid, not too much and acid blockers are only going to make the problem worse.
Black pepper also dramatically enhances the absorption of certain nutrients, such as selenium, B vitamins and beta-carotene and also turmeric, which is another hugely beneficial spice. That’s why most recipes for ‘Turmeric Latte’ or ‘Golden Milk’ include some black pepper. Like turmeric, black pepper also supports the liver’s detoxification process, so don’t be shy and spice up your food with the black stuff.
You can buy it as whole peppercorns, coarsely ground or finely ground. It’s best to buy whole peppercorns as they keep longer and you’ll know exactly what’s in your pepper: just pepper. Pre-ground powdered black pepper may also contain other spices and stays fresh for only about three months. Black peppercorns, on the other hand, keep almost indefinitely.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I have bought and discarded a number of pepper mills in my lifetime. If the grinder is made of plastic, it may not last very long and not grind very well from the start. When it comes to pepper mills, I think it is worth investing in a good quality one with a metal grinder. Personally, I like my pepper best coarsely ground and I use a mortar (which is also suitable for a fine grind).
You know what to do with pepper, so I don’t think you’ll need many suggestions, but have you tried pairing it with some of the more unlikely partners? How about black pepper and vanilla – a surprisingly tasty combination. It’s also nice on strawberries (with a trickle of balsamic vinegar).
And here’s what Michael McIntyre has to say about pepper: